Paul Brunton Philosophic Foundation homepage > Notebooks of Paul Brunton > Category 7: The Intellect > Chapter 4: Abstract Thought
Facts and logic
The way to deal with facts is not to ignore them but to meet and master them. The happiness got from the first will always be illusory whereas that got from the second will always be genuine.
Philosophy is not interested in twilight-gropings for occult phantoms or deceptive speculatings to exercise fancy. It seeks and accepts only verifiable facts.
But observation must be unprejudiced, sharp, and intelligent to produce the facts, and facts are apt to be obstinate and intractable.
By skilfully selecting some facts but suppressing more facts, by emphasizing a few and ignoring many, by distortion and dishonesty, a case could be built up for evil as good and for good as evil.
The futility of logic lies in this, that where facts please a man's fancy he will trot them forward in his oh-so-logical argument, whereas where they are not to his taste, he will unblushingly suppress them.
Those who take the trouble to form a rational opinion upon any matter by investigating the facts at first hand, have a stronger claim upon the attention of the thoughtful than those who receive ready-made opinions from books or hearsay.
It should never be necessary for anyone to encircle the fine philosophy of the Spirit with the unworthy defenses of a refusal to face facts.
We may measure the worth of a teaching by pressing it to its ultimate theoretical conclusion and by ascertaining clearly its ultimate practical destination.
How factual is their teaching? Do its tenets find confirmation in rigid observation in the factor of experience and the thoughts of reason? This is what he must ask himself if his training of the intellect is to bear spiritual fruit.
Even men of much experience find it hard at times to arrive at positive decisions on worldly matters when these offer as many arguments for one conclusion as for a different one. Even their matured minds may sway back and forth, unsettled and uncertain at such a time until they decide to wait for the turn of events to give them a positive directive what to do.
It bespeaks a well-matured well-balanced mentality if judgement is withheld on what appear to be fantastic claims until they have been investigated.
A statement which holds a half-truth because it is based on a selected half-fact removed from a contradictory context, can neither be accepted nor denied. It must be analysed and its parts carefully measured until its truth and its falsity are likewise properly revealed.
Time will either develop or deform this idea.
We must build a flexible system for the facts, not for the probable exceptions to the facts.
Facts are as hard to find as they are disconcerting to the demagogue.
We must closely distinguish between what we believe and what is fact. In this philosophy we deal only with facts. All else, whether theory, hypothesis, inference, axiom, or postulate, we discard because it is merely belief. We are unable to accept them because we deal only in proved facts.
What anyone is in no position to appraise or evaluate he ought not to reject or condemn.
Whoever presents such ideas must be ready to offer the evidence for them, to validate them with sufficient reasons, to defend them with sufficient facts.
The open-minded questioner who is not too hasty to come to a conclusion but first assembles sufficient data, and that in an ambient circular course which moves around all sides, will get rewarded.
So to magnify a fact as to render it out of proper proportion to other facts, is to make it a cause of imbalance in the mind and error in judgement.
Deliberate over-emphasis of a partial statement of truth is sometimes useful and necessary but always dangerous because liable to misunderstanding.
Subconsciously fearing to look at the facts as they are, he becomes an innocent at large.
If the facts are distasteful, his imagination will adulterate them to suit his palate. If this cannot be done, his devoted service to an imperfect theory will submerge them altogether.
Where there is gathered a sufficient number of facts on which to base a reasonably correct decision, it is still possible that one more fact, of an importance outweighing all the others, could induce a man's mind to alter the decision.
The order of his thoughts may be perfectly logical yet the truth of them may be largely absent. For the premises with which they start may be ready-made theories, the facts upon which they rest may be less important than those which they ignore, and personal factors may have unconsciously accepted the one and chosen the other.
Just as mysticism may give the dangerous illusion that it is dealing with reality when it is not, so logic may give the equally dangerous illusion that it is dealing with truth when it too is not doing so.
To call a man a "philosopher" when he is only a mere logician is to demean the word. Logic is a useful tool, for certain limited purposes, but it can as easily lead a man into great error as into great wisdom.
Let them not mistake exercises in logic for penetration into truth.
Logic is always beset by the serious charge that its so-called truths are fallacious ones. For instance, it insists on the law of contradiction, the law which says that a statement of facts cannot be true and false at the same time. But the careful study of illusions produces conclusions which falsify this law. We do not mean by this criticism to declare logic to be useless. We mean only what we have elsewhere written, that it is a good servant but a bad master.
If our original assumptions are wrong, then the irony is that the more logically we travel from them to our conclusions, the more distantly we travel from truth.
We have to learn a little logic because we ought to bring our judgements into proper connection with our premises, and because we ought to test the reality of their implications.
If we begin our quest of truth with any assumption, at the end we gain nothing new, nothing which was not already there in the beginning. And when we then remember that we started with a mere belief, we realize that there is and can be no certainty about our final conclusions, no matter how rigidly logical we have been during the journey. We begin with imagination and end with it. This is not philosophy, but poetry. There is no other road for genuine philosophy than to depend on facts, not on presuppositions.
Carlyle: "In the eyes of the Pure Reason man is a soul but in the eyes of logic only a biped."
When the hailstones of truth fall upon these fields of worthless assumptions and these growths of false logic, the result will be not a little entertaining.
It is not enough to offer evidence, however plausible it may be. Proof is better, and more convincing.
No simile or metaphor, used to help explain an idea, should be pressed too far for meaning, wrung-out too much for consequences or implications. Take what you can from it and then let it go. It is only a starting-point and not a finishing post.
Truth cannot be found by addition, that is, by piling one bit of information on top of another. Nor can it be found by calculation, that is, by arranging these bits in plausible logical forms.
Logicians pride themselves that they can offer with their "law of contradiction" a perfect test of truth. They call it the fundamental law on which reasoning rests. Put into a few words it declares, "A proposition cannot be both true and false." The extraordinary thing about this law is that its own truth cannot be proved by logicians themselves. They can offer an indirect or roundabout proof by assuming the contrary, and affirming that a proposition may be both true and false. The significance of such a statement, however, is as even the tentative denial of the law implies, that at the same time it may also be true. But this is a contradiction. Therefore, the law must be true. Unfortunately for the logicians, such a proof is hardly valid because it is applying the very law which is called into question. So they are forced to content themselves by regarding the law as a self-evident one.
He must be careful in his definition, progressive in his logic, and consistent in his attitude.
Thinking is a kind of guesswork. Logical thinking is intelligent guesswork. At its best it is limited by the thinker's nature, development, experience, and so on.
The conclusion to which a person will arrive after thinking upon the problem of the world will inevitably depend on the standpoint from which he starts.
It might seem that we devoted too much space in The Hidden Teaching Beyond Yoga to the chapters entitled "The Worship of Words" and "The Arbitrament of Thinking Power." There were, however, quite a few reasons why we did so and one of them was that mystically minded persons--who naturally composed the larger portion of our readers--had to be led to a higher octave of mysticism, the philosophic. But this could only be done by encouraging them to think for themselves, to cease taking certain dogmas blindly and certain men at traditional valuations, and to learn discrimination between the merely emotional and the authentically spiritual. One of the finest roads to such independent thought is the analytic striving to find out truth by words, phrases, and statements.
We must also clearly state a situation before we can profitably reason about it. We must define a problem before we can understand it.
The principle of non-contradiction is important. Without it, no rational philosophy can be constructed, no true knowledge obtained. This principle declares that the same thing cannot be in the same sense both affirmed and denied, it cannot be and not be. For instance, it is impossible to involve any object in the contradiction of being both hot and cold at one and the same moment. Any so-called reasoning which offends this primary principle can lead only to insanity and not to truth.
We must reason from relevant facts until we reach more remote truths.
He who examines and enquires will necessarily become the foe of hollow, meaningless formulae.
It is better to submit these statements to rational weighing in the scales on one's independent judgement rather than to accept credulously or dismiss wildly.
Without the slightest training in the science of evidence, people airily deliver themselves of judgements that will not stand expert dissection for five minutes.
Metaphors do not make arguments: they merely illustrate them.
Fling up the coin of their rhetoric and when it comes down on the ground of test, you will know it to be base.
Assertion is not demonstration. They mistake their personal prejudices for sound reasons. The fact that it is their pleasure to hold certain opinions, constitutes for them sufficient argument. As a result their folly is sent into the world as philosophy. Any doctrine which demands a hearing today, must render sound reasons for its appearance.
It is an elementary axiom in logical science that we can understand the relation between two given facts from their relation to a third fact.
Take karma, for instance: they may mouth this doctrine a hundred times yet, never having thought it out for themselves, they do not understand its far-reaching implications.
It is open to anyone to disregard the facts of a situation, if he wants to, but he is likely to bump into them if he moves about long enough.
Thinking can lead us nearer to the kingdom of heaven if it is of the right kind. But it can also lead us nearer to the gate of hell, if it is not.
A theory may be solidly based on observed facts or it may be mere conjecture to support a bias.
Such a faulty conclusion is a fitting reward for those who judge hastily on insufficient evidence.
The facts are there, but such thick mists of different speculations have fallen upon them that we stagger among them as though we were blind.
The need for precision
The need is not for further mumbled, vague, or utopian and unrealistic proposals that are more words than practicable suggestions, but for specific and serious ideas.
When the facts are incomplete and the reasoning is incorrect, the conclusions are hardly likely to be unbreakable.
By the aid of logic a man may as easily deceive himself as he may delude others.
Fanatical partisans full of pet theories naturally become intoxicated over them; thus they are unable to see straight and perceive truth until they recover their intellectual sobriety again.
The soundness of a theory does not depend upon the number of its adherents.
Such half-articulate nonsense atones for the poverty of its philosophical authenticity by the pose of its linguistic authority.
We can discuss, accept, or deny a statement when it possesses some meaning. But when it is quite unintelligible, then we are entitled to ignore it.
It is quite natural for those whose thinking flounders incoherently, to hold views which stop inconclusively.
The flimsy materials out of which some "philosophies" have been constructed are fit only for the attention of the fabulist, certainly not for the serious scientist. The entire structure rests on a base of fiction unmixed with the concrete of a single fact. One may well exclaim with Macaulay, "When the consequences of a doctrine are so startling, we may well require that its foundations shall be very solid."
To oversimplify such a problem is to falsify it.
If the assumptions with which they start are inaccurate, then the conclusions with which they finish must be regarded as unacceptable.
We may accept such doctrines only by strengthening faith and weakening reason.
He is one of those foolish persons who believe all thinking which passes through their brains must necessarily be correct and logical thinking.
The quality of metaphysical thinking must inevitably deteriorate and its independence of movement be discouraged if it is to be conditioned by personal authoritarianism.
Those who live under idealistic delusions are not less foolish than those who live under realistic ones.
To the precise kind of mind, the use of generalizations is a perilous venture.
Between the melancholy blacks and dazzling whites of these two positions, no allowance is made for intermediate shades.
We may admit their devout emotions while we rebut their doubtful reasonings.
It is amusing to hear these bigots set down their theories and call them facts, or revere them as propositions about which there could be no more doubt than about the theories of Euclid.
The question itself is direct enough but his reply is a dissertation on some other subject. This reminds me of a Tamil proverb about the bazaar shopkeeper who is asked for salt, but fails to admit he has not got it in stock, and instead replies that he has got lentils!
It will catch the careless and thoughtless, and all those who accept extreme claims without receiving definite proof.
It is time that they refrained from making wild generalizations out of isolated particulars.
We must bring such a teaching to the test by running the rule of common sense over it. It is then that we discover its claims to be weak and extravagant. The sonorous prose in which its gospel is gathered together plays a trick upon its readers, if not upon its author also. The path from its facts and promises to its conclusions and perorations is covered with a haze of obscurity and vagueness. It is in this eye-covering haze that the logical trick is performed.
If the variety of doctrines, the contradiction of tenets, and the fierceness of arguments are fully noted, what else can be said than that personal opinion is the real basis of most teachings, seldom factual knowledge or firsthand authority?
We must be on our guard against the impressive obscurities of immature philosophers.
Those who will read this statement with an ironical smile have my full sympathy and assent. For once I read similar statements with the same ironical smiles--nowadays I am too weary to argue; I prefer to agree with my adversary quickly, for I have realized that experience is not merely the best teacher; it is the only teacher.
If he is too easily vexed by other people's criticism, this is because the ego is still upholding his pride and vanity.
Philosophy disdains to lower itself into the use of a criticism which is merely destructive. But it does not hesitate to accord a proper place for a criticism which is courteous, dignified, honest, constructive, and useful.
Those so-called intelligentsia who regard life on a purely intellectual level, separated from its spiritual aspects on the left and its ethical aspects on the right, still have the self-illusion that they are dealing with reality.
The solemn, staid exponents talk as though the advocate were also the arbiter. They put forward their own silly theories with such thick veneers of impartiality that one wonders how anyone can have the tremendous temerity to turn round and say they are wrong!
We could criticize a foolish philosophy from its first postulate to its last conclusion; we could rend its illogical arguments and self-contradictory claims into a thousand pieces; but it is not worth the trouble doing so, while our time is worth more than being wasted upon such profitless work.
Some people are unable to walk unaided in the world of thought, and directly they step into it, they call out for a pair of crutches in the form of a dogma.
These literary authorities deem it undignified to be lively and hence sink into a stagnant pool.
There are literary wasps, who fight and try to sting though never provoked, since it is in their miserable nature.
As a rule the wise man will not spare strength to engage in polemical thrusts. But when the inner monitor bids him enter the fray, he has no other recourse than to submit.
The worthless reputation of such criticism is exemplified by the fact that the opposition of these narrow-minded critics forms the best service they can render our doctrine.
Argument is a language they cannot understand, because logic is a science they have never learned; but invective and ridicule are something that they can understand, something that will arouse their passions and cut their feelings and corrode their credulity.
I have been studying this question only about thirty years but my critic has been studying it only about thirty minutes.
It is not their published statements that are so significant as the omissions from their statements.
When such critics cannot meet your impersonal arguments, they will assault your personal character.
To tell most people the simple, if subtle, truth is to provoke them to partisan wrath.
To such unintelligent objections, we may well answer with old Dr. Johnson, "I have found you a reason, sir--I am not bound to find you an understanding."
These people possess a remarkable talent for finding out difficulty in what is perfectly plain. They complain at our arguments because in brief, the latter have been directed to a higher intellectual level than that of a boy of ten.
Argument can be refined, dignified, and courteous and still remain argument. But the crude and immature think it necessary to express themselves by abuse and vilification in order to prove their points!
The pompous pedantry of some academic circles is not less unbalanced than the illiterate inarticulateness of those who scorn them.
These lopsided characters who make intellect their sole judge guide and support, have imprisoned themselves in it and refuse to leave their jail. Are they not foolish?
They use their minds only to deal with matters and to answer questions arising from their personal desires and social situations, only for the private satisfaction of their earthly interests. A higher use of it makes no appeal.
We must not only renounce such an unsatisfactory doctrine, but also denounce it.
In the new loyalty to a narrower view of truth, they abandon the High, the Holy, the Beautiful, and the Refined. The practical benefits of their education are plain; but why become a dwarf to get them?
They are imprisoned by their own illusory concepts and unless something or someone from outside comes to release them they will continue to be captive, limited, and unnecessarily lost in illusions.
The meaning of a word or phrase may be multiple, which is why translations vary, why interpretations are disputed, and why statements in bureaucratic jargon leave some persons uncertain and others unclear. Hence lawyers are hired, teachers of semantics arise, and sects flourish. But turn to numbers and one knows precisely what one is dealing with. They fulfil their function without debate. No mist arises. So Pythagoras can boldly assert: "The universe is founded upon numbers."
The power of abstract thought has characterized the best class of minds since time immemorial.
Abstract thinking shifts the mind's attention to quite a different level. Such thoughts do not have an outer appearance. They take no shape. They are to be comprehended--known by being understood.
Few venture to do more than peep beyond the portals, for they are unable to bear the hard strain of prolonged philosophical thinking.
However noble they may be morally or however abstract they may be metaphysically, it is not by living in the ideas in his mind that a man can ever live in his true self. Somewhere in his field of consciousness all thinking must be transcended if he is ever to do this.
The logic of your thinking must be as universally valid as mathematics. Nobody can cheat mathematics.
Men understand more easily what they can see, touch, and hear--that is, images, forms, and pictures--in short, symbols. These are the idols honoured by simpler minds. But when they develop their minds sufficiently they become able to think in terms of simple arithmetic progressing to the laws of geometry, and from algebra on to higher mathematics.
The fact is it is utterly impossible to form an abstract idea in the mind. We can only think of particular ideas.
When the sage does indulge in the luxury of a conversation with an inquirer or spiritual aspirant he usually adopts the Socratic method. There is probably no more powerful or effective method of compelling a man to think, to exercise his own reason, instead of repeating parrot-like phrases, than this of thrusting question after question at him.
The first use of general principles, the first worth of general theories is to economize thought and thus to avoid going over the same ground again and again.
This is a remarkable and little-known power of abstract reflection--that, just as one thorn may be used to pick out a second from the skin, so a line of thinking can be so used as to bring all thinking to an end.
Why did Pythagoras put mathematics among the necessary preliminary disciplines for the study of philosophy? Here was part of the way to counteract man's natural materialism. It trained him to think abstractly, to hold pure ideas whose exactitude and truthfulness were indisputable. And he supported the teaching by pointing to the fact that the universe was founded on number. Finally, the higher use of mathematics was as an aid in symbolizing metaphysical principles.
When we begin to operate with abstract concepts in the practical world, we begin to know their true worth.
Except as an intellectual exercise, I would discourage abstract speculation upon which so many intellectuals have frittered away their time, as our medieval theologians frittered theirs.
We seek truth for various reasons. One is because it possesses a certitude that gives us anchorage and rest.
Mathematics is fortunate in having been able to invent a language of symbols and signs which is adequate to the most exacting demands of precision. The connotation of each sign is definite. It derives a fixed meaning from the common universe of discourse which is implicit as the background of both speaker and hearer. The mathematician must give every symbol he uses a clear meaning in his own mind as well as to those who are to read his symbols. Therefore, he is compelled to provide a common medium of understanding about which there can be no two opinions. Mathematics is thus placed in a position of superiority in reference to language and rigorous reasoning when compared to other subjects. It provides perfect instruments for the expression of an idea. The meaning of the arithmetical minus sign is forever invariable and forever precise.
The man who has thought well about thinking itself may put forward more clever ideas in a single hour than others do in a single week.
The brain of the intellectual man multiplies thoughts but the brain of the yogi subtracts and reduces them.
Thinking in terms of mental images is a valuable faculty, but thinking in words alone is not less valuable. Both are needed to the balanced person.
The value assigned to the symbol X must be strictly adhered to throughout the series of equations and, being predetermined, no confusion concerning what it stands for can ever arise. But when we turn to words we find them to be imperfect, elastic, and indeterminate. When we deal with mathematical symbols we expect and find a determinate meaning has been assigned to them, but when we deal with words we cannot always expect and often fail to find any fixed meaning at all.
The ordinary man who is used to dealing only with concrete things his eyes can see and his hands can touch, quite pardonably feels, when he is asked to deal with abstract conceptions, that he is at once out of his depth.
When one does not know his Real Self, that is, his own deepest being, it is of little avail to ponder on difficult questions of an intellectual nature.
The symmetry of the universe's patterns appears best in the figure of a circle.
The ability to think abstractly and metaphysically is not a waste of time as so many scientists, activists, and practical men of the world think. On the contrary it is needed as a counterbalance to the ability to think concretely.
So long as a man gets all his ideas from experiences gained through the body alone, so long may he pardonably accept the belief in materialism. But as soon as he begins to get them from thinking alone--and the difference can not be properly grasped until he has practised meditation sufficiently and successfully--so soon will he see the falsity of this belief.
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