Sera asked:

Theoretical philosophy seems like entertainment at best and a waste of time at worst, but I can’t stop seeking answers for this world.

If the physical world isn’t evidence of anything other than simply what we observe, is it all right to want to reach the abstract world? What are the benefits of understanding the abstract world; how would a complete understanding of the abstract world affect our lives here?

Answer by Peter Jones

Hello Sera.

Yes, theoretical philosophy can certainly seem this way. As you will see, however, if you read my article, ‘Is metaphysics a waste of time?’ in a recent edition of the Pathways Journal, my view would be that it does not have to be like this. Yes, there will always be a strong sense in which theoretical philosophy, the logical/ discursive analysis of philosophical problems, is mere entertainment and idle scholasticism. There can be no doubt that it is entertaining, it is all too easy to become addicted, and logical analysis can never tell us what is actually true in fact, only calculate the ‘best’ theory of what is true, so must always come second to empiricism. The thing is, though, that if an activity is entertaining this does not mean it is worthless. And having a best theory of what is true would be a necessary foundation for directed empirical research. If you seek answers for philosophical questions you will be lucky to find them if you have no best theory of where they might be found, and for this some theoretical philosophy would be required.

‘Abstract world’ may be a slightly confusing phrase here since the world of spacetime phenomenon, the world that you describe as ‘simply what we observe’, the ‘psycho-physical’ world, may in fact be an ‘abstract’ world, if by this we mean it is not concrete. Francis Bradley surveys the world as a whole in his metaphysical essay Appearance and Reality, and it is what you call the ‘abstract world’ that he calls Reality, not the world of our physical senses. Many others who see the world in this way. Perhaps ‘unseen’ or ‘unmanifest’ world would be better.

‘If the physical world isn’t evidence of anything other than simply what we observe, is it alright to want to reach the abstract world? This is one of those times that the answer can be found in the question. The physical world is conclusive evidence that we observe, that there is an observer. The psycho-physical world of our senses (let us include mind here as a sense) is precisely what we observe, no more and no less, not even by one iota, and it can never be any more or less than this. What we never observe in this psycho-physical world is an observer. We can search to ends of the earth but we will never observe such a thing. This is the phenomenon that is doing the observing, and it cannot be the subject of an observation. Hence we have in philosophy the problem of ‘other minds’. By observation alone, from an examination of the evidence that we simply observe, we can never be sure that we are not the only observer in the whole universe, the only being that is not a zombie. Still, this is enough for us to know that there is an observer, and thus to serve as a proof that there is an unseen or ‘abstract’ world. As to whether it is alright ‘to want to reach this abstract world’, this is not a choice you are free to make. As long as there is an observer and an observation, as long as you are aware that there are these two things, then there will be two worlds, the abstract and the concrete, and you will seem to be in both of them.

What would be the benefits of understanding this ‘abstract’ world? This would depend on who you want to believe. For some people there could be no such thing, and even if there were it would be inaccessible to knowledge and understanding. This cannot be proven, however, so other views survive. For the philosophy of the Upanishads we would have to say that although there are these two worlds, one seemingly abstract and one seemingly concrete, they would be emergent. This is relevant here because it is the claim that the world is a whole or a unity, that these two worlds are not fundamentally distinct. If we do some theoretical philosophy then we can work out, as did Leibnitz, that a whole or a unity cannot have parts. The claim of this philosophy is therefore that there is a level of existence, an unmanifest state of being, common to all human beings, a fundamental shared identity, at which level the distinction between abstract and concrete or observer and observed is transcended. At any rate, this would be Bradley’s ‘Reality’, not abstract or concrete, but real as opposed to apparent. If so, there would clearly be some benefit in knowing this.

So your abstract world is explained by the Upanishads as the original phenomenon on which the appearance of all other phenomena, mental or corporeal, depend for their moment-to-moment appearance. This would not be some barely accessible and distant scientific phenomenon that we must observe by looking through a telescope or microscope, but the very foundation of our being, inescapably ever-present for all sentient beings whether we like it or not,. ‘Closer to us than our jugular’ is how one Sufi master puts it. This would be an ‘abstract’ world in the sense that we would be unable to observe it, but it would be more real than the apparently ‘concrete’ world of observed appearances.

Should we give this view any credence? Is there really an abstract world? Perhaps there is nothing to research, no answers to your questions. Unless you wish to take up the empirical practices of philosophy then like it or not theoretical philosophy would be the only method for deciding your question. You would certainly have to do a lot of theoretical philosophy in order to prove to yourself that it is a waste of time. I rather think it depends how we look at it, and would suggest that theoretical philosophy is immensely useful up the point where one realises it is not, by which time it has served its purpose.

How would a complete understanding of world affect our lives? Such a knowledge of the two worlds you characterise as abstract and concrete would, I suspect, make you a Buddha according to the Buddhist definition, someone fully awake to the relationship between the observed and unobserved realms. If you want to know what the benefits of gaining such a profound knowledge are then I regret to say that you will have to ask someone else. But it is possible to observe the behaviour, lifestyles and general demeanour of those who have come close to such knowledge and draw ones own conclusions.