The Woe Of A Dreamer

Lost in an echo long since uttered…in a place long since forgotten.
We have time to be; and pick out the hollowed reminisce of an echo.
Dreams come so quickly before leaving.
The mind seems to be at a miss to their origins;
only having time to remember glimpses of past experiences.
Playing those treasured moments back in a reel,
like a film which never ends.

The long to return to some distant dream;
to some distant corner of paradise… seems impossible.
The moments that haunt can never be replayed as they once were originally.
Those moments of revelation, that draw the mind to explain the mystery of the day,
are only realised in those passing lights.

Beauty is exaggerated; hurtful pains hit home to gripping moments.
Knees are dropped to engage for but-a-fraction, before entirely disappearing….
Why cannot the moment remain for longer?
Why must it flee with the recoiling of darkness?
Why must the dream end?

The dream of the world to be as it was,
(the dream for it to return to a state of innocence)
can be heart aching.

It is human desire to become a child once more;
echoing the longest of woes.
The human mind’s desire to be a child once more;
to be innocent, care-free, calm and secure.
The shift from childhood to adult can (and is) the most turbulent of mental storms.
For if winds be too much, those sails that carry across ocean waves…
lead to rocky shores….

And so was the woe of the dreamer.

Written By: Anthony Avice Du Buisson


Knowledge Blast: Agnostic Thought

We are, for a better use of the word, ‘limited’ in our ability to fully conceive of our place in the grand scheme of the universe…if there is a ‘scheme’ to begin with at all. What does one mean by this? Well, for one, think of the limitations of the human body in matters regarding understanding. Neuroscience has given us insight into the nervous system, which allows us the ability to compute sensory information collected from-what we believe to be- reality; it has shown this system, thus far, to be at fault. Instead of revealing a perfect system that would allow for us the ability to fully perceive the world around us, without the tendency to align perceptions of reality, with biases favouring self-interest and self-preservation. We are instead evolved with a pattern recognition system that favours matters that regard self-interest, and self-preservation; pattern seeking mammals who have developed systems of ‘order’, with a-some-what, ‘disordered’ nervous system. The irony alone should make us stop to think about just how much we claim to know about the world around us.  In philosophy, specifically that of epistemology- which deals with the nature of what we claim to know- there is an epistemological position known as ‘agnosticism’, and it deals with knowledge…especially that of its limitations. 

Before we can lay the ground work for agnosticism, we need to first understand a couple key words and their definitions. Firstly: the word ‘belief’ refers to an ‘act of confidence in a proposition’; to hold a ‘belief’ is to have confidence that, one’s idea of reality conforms to the way reality functions.  The belief in the proposition ‘pigs fly’, for example, is to say that one has confidence that pigs-for all intended purposes-can, in fact, fly. Beliefs can either be justified (this being in the sense that those beliefs have evidence to support them, in the form of an account of a causal linkage- linking ideas and reality together), or they can be unjustified (this being in the sense that those beliefs have little evidence to support them). When a belief is justified it is constituted as being ‘knowledge’; when a belief is held but is not justified it is constituted as being ‘faith’. Secondly: the word ‘knowledge’ refers to a ‘well-justified true belief’; as mentioned before, if a belief has been substantiated well enough with evidence that the belief aligns with reality, and thus is constituted as being ‘true’, then that belief constitutes  as being ‘knowledge’. Semantics aside: onto agnosticism.

Agnosticism is a position on knowledge… nothing else. It is specifically the position on epistemology that states, absolute knowledge and certainty-on matters concerning human understanding-to be unknowable; in other words, it is the position that says, ‘we cannot claim to know absolute knowledge and certainty on any matter regarding truth’ (From the Greek word, ‘agnōsis’, which literally translates into ‘without knowledge’). It is the rejection of absolute knowledge claims. Originally coined by the British biologist, Thomas Henry Huxley, in 1869-in which he clarified that:

“Agnosticism, in fact, is not a creed, but a method, the essence of which lies in the rigorous application of a single principle. That principle is of great antiquity; it is as old as Socrates; as old as the writer who said, ‘Try all things, hold fast by that which is good’; it is the foundation of the Reformation, which simply illustrated the axiom that every man should be able to give a reason for the faith that is in him, it is the great principle of Descartes; it is the fundamental axiom of modern science. Positively the principle may be expressed: In matters of the intellect, follow your reason as far as it will take you, without regard to any other consideration. And negatively: In matters of the intellect, do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable. That I take to be the agnostic faith, which if a man keep whole and undefiled, he shall not be ashamed to look the universe in the face, whatever the future may have in store for him.”(‘Agnosticism’, 1889, Thomas Huxley)

What Huxley means by this, is that agnosticism makes no claims beyond which reason permits it can. It is not arrogant in stating absolute certainty on a matter that has yet to be ascertained; it simply states that we are limited in our capacity to know. Furthermore, Huxley expresses that the role of agnosticism is ‘not’ meant to be taken as a position of mindless ignorance towards the truth of a proposition; it is simply meant to be taken as a position of scepticism towards claims made in absolute certainty and knowledge. Huxley’s reasoning follows from the fact that the methods in which we come to knowledge are inherently at fault. This is due to the limitations of the human mind in fully conceiving the world around it. For instance: we have yet to traverse the whole of the cosmos, and reveal everything within it, to make claims of absolute knowledge about it. Those who are certain in their convictions, over the truth of a proposition’s validity, cannot be so; to claim absolute knowledge on a proposition, they need to possess all available knowledge in the cosmos, including the past, present and future. This is just not possible given our mental limitations.

Huxley’s use of the word ‘agnosticism’ differs tremendously on how the public uses the word today. For instance: it is wrongly assumed that agnosticism is a position between, ‘atheism’ and ‘theism’, or otherwise portrayed as a ‘non-compatible term’ that cannot be reconciled with either ‘theism’ or ‘atheism’. This false understanding of agnosticism is not merely a manifestation of the misconceptions aimed at those who are ignorant about the term’s meaning; it is also held with such vehemency,  by those who are reluctant to want to be associated with ‘theism’ or ‘atheism’, for cultural reasons. In understanding agnosticism, to be merely a position on knowledge that neither affirms the claim of absolute knowledge about a proposition of truth, nor makes any comment on the nature of believing in said proposition, the ‘agnostic’ is humbling themselves with acknowledging their limitations. It should be noted that agnosticism does not deal with belief; it only deals with knowledge. Whereas theism and atheism deal respectively with belief or non-belief in a deity’s existence, agnosticism and Gnosticism deal respectively with what we claim to know about that deity’s existence or non-existence. Agnosticism takes the position that absolute knowledge and certainty about the non-existence or existence of a deity is unknowable, and Gnosticism takes the position that absolute knowledge and certainty about the non-existence or existence of a deity is knowable. Therefore, the word ‘agnostic’ is compatible with the word ‘atheist’ or ‘theist’, as is the word ‘gnostic’.

This compatibility can be expressed as so:

-Agnostic atheism: Does not believe in a deity’s existence, but does not claim to know that a deity does not exist.

-Gnostic atheism: Does not believe in a deity’s existence, but does claim to know that a deity does not exist.

-Agnostic theism: Does believe in a deity’s existence, but does not claim to know that a deity does exist.

-Gnostic theism: Does believe in a deity’s existence, but does claim to know that a deity does exist.

Agnosticism can be further expressed in terms of the strength one is willing to put in this scepticism towards claims made in absolute knowledge. ‘Temporal agnosticism’, is the position most often taken by those who identify as ‘agnostic’; it expresses that the data for a deity’s existence or non-existence is inconclusive, and thus one should withhold their judgement in either proposition. However, this does not mean that the data will remain inconclusive; it just means that until such time when the data becomes conclusive to a proposition’s validity, judgement should be withheld. ‘Permanent agnosticism’, takes a much more hard line position than temporal agnosticism; it states that due to our limitations as evolved primates, we cannot make absolute knowledge claims about the non-existence or existence of a deity. Therefore, strong agnostics state that judgement cannot be made about either proposition’s validity. Agnosticism’s sceptical approach towards claims made in absolute knowledge and certainty is the cornerstone of inquiry, in both science and philosophy; it is for this reason that many in both the scientific and philosophical disciplines will state-when they are uncertain about the truth of a proposition-that they are ‘agnostic’ towards it. This is both an honest and humble thing to do, when one does not know.

If we are to conceptualise agnosticism in a frame work that will do it justice; we need only look as far as Richard Feynman. Richard Feynman was a theoretical physicist who worked at Cornell University in the mid-20th century; best known for his work in quantum mechanics, specifically that of quantum electrodynamics. An avid speaker and educator, Feynman is known for his intellect and support for the scientific method, as well as the ‘Feynman method’ of learning. The Feynman method of learning involves four key steps; these steps will be applied to agnosticism, but these steps can be applied to any concept one is willing to learn. These steps are as follows:

Step 1: Identify a concept of study.

-Example: Agnosticism

Step 2: Explain concept, as if to teach others about it.

-Explanation: Agnosticism is a position on knowledge that states that absolute knowledge and certainty are unknowable. 

Step 3: If one gets stuck on explanation, refer back to original source material.

-Original Source Material: “Agnosticism, in fact, is not a creed, but a method, the essence of which lies in the rigorous application of a single principle … Positively the principle may be expressed: In matters of the intellect, follow your reason as far as it will take you, without regard to any other consideration. And negatively: In matters of the intellect do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable.” (Huxley, Thomas. ‘Agnosticism’. 1889.)

Step 4: Simplify Concept and use examples, along with analogies to emphasise it.

-Simplification of Concept: I don’t know. 

-Example of concept in use: “What is in that unopened box?”, “I don’t know…and neither do you.” 

-Analogy of concept: “If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a teapot revolving around the Sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is an intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or the Inquisitor in an earlier time.”(Russell, Bertrand. “Is There a God? [1952]”. ‘The Collected Papers of Bertrand Russell, Voll 11: Last Philosophical Testament, 1943-1968’. Routledge. pp. 547-548.)

The Feynman method allows us to understand agnosticism by means of looking at the concept, and identifying with it. From Huxley to Russell, agnostic thought has sought to represent itself in society, through society’s great minds. These minds have sought, in their endeavours to push against the tide of extremism that absolute knowledge brings, to build a society by which inquiry and scepticism are held up as beacons of hope for the world. Furthermore, those who proclaim-with such vehemency-that they know the truth of a matter absolutely, and everyone else who does not know this truth are simply wrong, are deluding themselves in their conclusions. As mentioned at the start of this piece, the human mind is limited in its capacity to know the world around it, and as a result, conclusions that are made today can be wrong tomorrow. This is why scientific hypotheses are tested against reality, and falsified; if the hypothesis succeeds all the tests against it, and is proven empirically, it is ranked up to the level of ‘theory’-which is one of the highest distinctions attainable. However, this theory is ‘not-wrong’ but it is not ‘right’ either, for future experiments could undo the ones done at present. This is why science makes provisional conclusions and not absolute ones.

We live in a time of turbulence and confusion (The most recent example of this has been the death of twelve ‘Charlie Hebdo’ satirical artists, in Paris, at the hands of Muslim extremists. What was their crime? For daring to draw cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad, in an ‘unflattering manner’.), where many seem to find themselves speaking out against extremism; the kind brought by those who claim to hold the ‘Truth’…the absolute ‘Truth’-as it were. For these demagogues and proliferators who espouse rhetoric, anyone who scrutinises or expresses doubt towards their claims makes themselves a target for violence and censorship. This is worrying in the 21st century, where science has revealed tremendous things about our limitations; if we wish to continue to live as a species, we need to throw off the shackles of certainty and embrace humble doubt. The first step towards wisdom is to realise how ignorant you are; once you realise that, then acquiring knowledge becomes an act of humility. And, it is for this reason that we have got thus far in our cognitive ability to inquire about the cosmos around us. If we are to continue to do so, it is time we start striking back at those making claims of absolute knowledge and certainty…before it is too late.

Written By: Anthony Avice Du Buisson (8/01/2015)


Letters to a Concerned Free-Thinker, Letter #1: Purpose:

Dear Thinker.

The worst human crime that one can bestow upon another, the crime that one should not seek to spread, is the crime of appropriated purpose; it is a crime to tell someone what their purpose is.

I once was asked by a stranger, well walking past the usual corner store that I pass on my trips home from my department, the question:“What is the purpose of life?” Having been at that time not particularly interested in existential musings – more interested in stock numbers – and not really in the best frame of mind to talk to as well, I responded with a question of my own, “What is the meaning of your life?“- All in the expectation of avoiding conversation. However, what I did not expect was his quick and strange response, “the meaning of my life is subjective: purpose is not”, and the stare that accompanied it. Instead of engaging further, I sought to rush home as soon as possible and get away from the individual. It was during that night that the most peculiar thoughts came to my mind; thoughts at which I now express here.

The question that the stranger has initially asked, well strange, was in fact an objective question. If one is to consider the question, “what is the purpose of life?” and compare it with the question, “what is the meaning of your life?” one will notice an interesting difference. Well the latter is easily recognised as being a subjective question on the basis of the pronoun “your”, the former, however, is not as easily recognisable. The former carries with it an objective property, this being the noun “purpose”, which can be either taken subjectively (depending on the context), or objectively (again, depending on the context).  Depending upon how the individual views the question, the answer to it will shape their mental framework. If one viewed the question in a subjective manner, then the answer would depend upon the person assessing it; the street sweeper might find the purpose to their life in the medial task they do. If, however, one were to view the question in an objective manner, then the answer would not be determined by the person assessing it; the street sweeper might find the purpose to their life as not being in the medial task they do, and in some external factor. Objectivity is not the ideal form of a property; objectivity is rather the maximum potential of a property to be ideal. Instead of purpose being strictly the ideal vision of a system, purpose is instead the maximum potential for that system to be ideal. The biological purpose of a mammal is to reproduce and spread their genes; however the mammal can only get as close to that ideal. I distinctly remember my writings as an adolescent, who was still wondering about my place in this cosmos. Some of the notes have been provided below:

The first time someone tells you what your purpose is, is the moment you know that they are deciding an answer for you. No one can answer the question for you; no one!

It is you who answers it. For that answer you give is one that, not only is one of liberty, but freedom as well. Humans seem to want control over their neighbour’s lives, more so then they should. From religious apologists to concerned passers, everyone seems to want to have a say in each other’s destiny. It is, however, always bad; we all, after all, share a ‘room’ with our neighbour, and what we do in that room affects what our neighbour will do. Yet, purpose and meaning are still our own to decide; our neighbour may share the same room, but in effect we have our own book to write. We keep our own book on a shelf, or a different shelf (dependent what types of shelves you get cheap), the point is there are separate books, one for us and the one for our neighbours. By having the liberty and freedom to the contents in the book with which we write in, it will allow one the greatest of rights. The problem comes when others start writing in our own book.

When your neighbour writes the contents and decides what happens next, directing you in what way they wish you to go, you will have your freedom impeded upon. Putting this into perspective, the people who tell you the answer to a question that only concerns you are the ones threatening your liberty and freedom. People must be aware of their neighbour’s activity, if it concerns their interests. This is not to be taken as ‘peaking over your neighbour’s shoulder, while they write’ (though there will be those that do, to you, and you may do it in-spite of your neighbour), or ‘taking your neighbour’s book and scanning through its contents’, no. It is to say to be aware of your neighbour’s presence. People forget about the company they keep, and it is this forgetfulness that can prove their downfall.

As one can see by my writings, I have since developed in my attitude towards the book one places on their shelf. Though everyone has the liberty to write what they wish, and in that affect live the way they wish, there will always be a collision of ideals. We live in unison to others, we interact with others on a daily basis, some by accident, others not. The stranger that I had met only asked me a question that I should have given a proper answer to, but in my arrogance I left it. In some way I have left a tiny note in their book, but I do not think it is one that I might approve of…but that is how the wind blew that day. Looking back on some of my notes, and recollecting at the nature I wrote them in; I cannot help but mention one last note:

For meaning and purpose may be yours to decide, the answer is not always permanent; it is forever changing as time and circumstance allows it to do so. For the look in the room may grow weary with time, but as long as there is the author to write out the book of their life, the room will always be vibrant, and will always live on. When all the time is up and the last words written, it will join a great library where it will remain as an omen of what once was the author’s words.

This I write to you.
Knowledge is power.

Written By: Anthony Avice Du Buisson 19/02/2014
(revised 7/04/2015)