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Human Conscience is an Unending Stream of Continuous Thought

William James and his concept of Stream of Consciousness

Although the concept of the mind possessing a streaming consciousness can be found in early Buddhist texts, the first modern approach to the phenomenon was put forward by William James (1842-1910), one of the United States’ first recognized psychologists in his 1,200-word masterwork The Principles of Psychology in 1899.

In this book, James speaks of consciousness as being “unbroken” and states that there are no “gaps,” or as he liked to say no “intrusive alien substances,” that come along to distinguish or break up one period of consciousness from the next. For consciousness to be interrupted by gaps or intrusions, James thought, is like “expecting the eye to feel a gap of silence because it does not hear, or the ear to feel a gap of darkness because it does not see. So much,” he said, “for the gaps that are unfelt.”

Consciousness, rather than being “chopped up,” was likened instead by James to a river or stream, a process that is ever-flowing even in the event of a sudden interruption, such as an explosion or losing one’s footing and falling over. These sorts of things-a clap of thunder or the sound of a gunshot—are about as disconnected from our present thoughts as “a joint in bamboo is a break in the wood.” The thunder clap is as intrinsically a part of our continuing, unbroken consciousness as the joint is a part of the bamboo in which it grows. James believed that our cognitive experiences overlap one another and are linked by what he called “fringes,” subconscious tabs, which act as clasps that are necessary in binding our conscious thoughts together, and prevent us from living in a chaotic inner world of random, unrelated experiences.

James’s theory influenced literature and became a narrative device to depict the multitudinous thoughts and feelings that pass through an individual’s mind. James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) is one of the best-known examples of the stream of consciousness technique. William James wrote in Principles of Psychology (1890) that, “The attempt at introspective analysis in these cases is in fact like seizing a spinning top to catch its motion, or trying to turn up the gas quickly enough to see how the darkness looks.”

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Plato Discusses Compulsory Education in “The Republic”

Compulsory education is a system of education that begins at birth and identifies society’s future leaders.

A second-century relief from a Roman burial monument, depicting a boy reading to his teacher. Schooling was provided for boys only during Roman times. The notion of compulsory education refers to a period of education mandated by law or by some comparable authority. One of the earliest efforts to codify requirements for education is set out in the Talmud, the compendium of Jewish law. The Talmud recommends a form of private education in the family home that emphasizes religious matters in addition to training in whatever the family vocation might be.

Plato (c. 424–c. 348 BCE) was one of the earliest thinkers to draw up the architecture of a full-blown system of public education. In The Republic (c. 360BCE), he describes an education system designed to effect the social stratification that, according to him, is prerequisite for justice to prevail in a state. Plato wrote, “I would teach children music, physics, and philosophy; but most importantly music, for the patterns in music and all the arts are the keys to learning.”

Plato, Philosopher and Mathematician in Classical Greece The education system of his republic begins at birth, when infants are removed from the family and raised by a collective. Educators are tasked with monitoring children in order to identify leadership qualities so that those who have “gold in their souls” (Plato uses this precious metal as a metaphor for leadership potential) can be properly trained to assume elevated offices of state, the highest of which is the office of philosopher king.

In Laws (c. 360 BCE), a later work, Plato presents a more moderate education system, one that more closely resembles contemporary systems. Infants are not removed from their families and there are no philosopher kings. However, proper social stratification is still the objective. Formal schooling begins at the age of six, when the curriculum focuses on literacy and arithmetic. By age thirteen, music is introduced into the curriculum, and at age eighteen the youth begins his terms of military service. By the age of twentyone, those students demonstrating the necessary aptitudes are selected for advanced studies that lead to the highest offices of the state. Education systems surprisingly close in character to this ancient model are now the norm in every developed country.

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Objectivism: Ayn Rand’s Novel Philosophy

The Religion and Philosophy of Ayn Rand

Frustrated with her intellectual climate, novelist and lay philosopher Ayn Rand (1905-82) collected ideas from a variety of philosophers and cobbled them into a unique view that she named Objectivism. She expounded on this personal worldview in her novel Atlas Shrugged, published in 1957. Rand defends Aristotle’s ideas that reality exists objectively and authoritatively, that the laws of logic guide our understanding, and that consciousness is the seat of humans’ ability to know. She defends the rationalist ideas that morality is objective and that conscious rationality bestows special moral significance. And she also defends the classical liberal idea that each person is obligated to respect every person’s right to pursue her interests, so long as those pursuits do not interfere with another person’s right to do so. Rand then argues that the only sociopolitical system consistent with these ideas is laissez-faire capitalism, that is, a free market economy.

One controversial implication is what Rand calls “the virtue of selfishness.” Since each person is intrinsically valuable, one’s primary moral obligation is to pursue one’s own interests. This pursuit is limited only by the recognition that others are also valuable, and thus no one has the right to deceive or coerce others. Selfish interests cannot conflict because it cannot be in our interests to have something to which we have no right. Although some goods may result from collective action, such goods never justify the use of force.

Rand’s philosophy continues to spark controversy, especially among those who argue that some “social goods” cannot be achieved by individuals and that unacceptable economic inequalities result from unregulated trade. Though not all capitalists would call themselves Objectivists, many cite Rand as a formative influence, including economist Walter Williams (b. 1936) and politician Ron Paul (b. 1935).

Ayn Rand’s magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged (1957), encompassed her ideas of rationalism, individualism, and capitalism within a dystopian United States.

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The Nature versus Nurture Debate

Nature Versus Nurture

The question of whether characteristics are inherited (nature) or fostered (nurture) was first proposed by Francis Galton.

English polymath Francis Galton (1822-1911) was born into a rich and influential family that included naturalist Charles Darwin (1809-82), his cousin. He initially studied mathematics at Cambridge University but became interested in psychology, along with anthropology, geography, statistics, and many other subjects.

In one study, Hereditary Genius (1869), he considered the implications of his cousin’s theories on sociology and psychology. He favored the position that all characteristics, including intelligence, are inherited through natural selection, though he later came to believe that the nurturing environment had an important influence. His work also led him to develop the pseudo-science of eugenics.

Much of the important evidence in the nature versus nurture debate has come from the study of twins, including both nonidentical (fraternal or dizygotic) twins (who, when raised together, possess different natures but share the same nurture), and identical or monzygotic twins (who, when separated at birth or very soon after, experience different nurture but possess the same initial natural inheritance). The results of such studies have highlighted some remarkable instances of natural inheritance, such as the development of Type 2 diabetes in separated identical twins at almost the same time in their mid-life, and have also cataloged the psychological effects of a variety of environmental factors.

Today, the debate initiated by Galton is still very much alive. At one extreme, Nativists such as John Bowlby and Noam Chomsky believe that most or even all psychological characteristics, including those that develop later in life, are governed by the body’s genetic code. On the Empiricist side of the argument, theorists such as Albert Bandura and B. F. Skinner see the human mind at birth as resembling a blank slate, onto which character is engraved by later experiences.

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Confucius on Types of Men

Confucius on Types of Men

Confucius distinguishes four types or levels of man:

  1. The highest embraces the saints, those who possess knowledge from birth. Confucius never saw a saint but he has no douht that they existed in antiquity.
  2. The second level comprises those who must acquire knowledge by learning; they can become “superior men.”
  3. The men of the third level find it hard to learn, but they do not let this discourage them.
  4. Those of the fourth level find it hard and make no effort.

The two middle types are on the way; they progress though they may fail. Confucius writes, “Only the highest wise men and the lowest fools are unchangeable.”

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The Death of Confucius

The Death of Confucius

From age 56 to 68, the Chinese philosopher Confucius wandered from state to state hoping that somewhere he could put his political doctrine into practice. During these years he never lost confidence in his cailling as political mentor of the Empire.

At age 57, when he returned to his native state finally, he lamented in a poem that, “men are without insight, quickly the years pass.” He said, despite all his wanderings through nine provinces there was still no goal in sight for him.

Confucius spent his last years peacefully in Lu. He accepted no government position. He seems to have undergone a profound change. A hermit once said of Confucius: “Is that not the man who knows that striving is without hope and yet goes on?” He studied the I Ching, or Book of Changes, so rich in secrets and completed his systematic groundwork for a new mode of education by committing traditions to writing and by instructing a group of young men.

One morning Confucius felt the approach of death. He walked about the courtyard, humming the words: “The great mountain must collapse, the mighty beam must break, and the wise man wither like a plant.”

When an alarmed pupil spoke to him, he said: “No wise ruler arises, and no one in the Empire wishes to make me his teacher. The hour of my death has come.” He lay down and died eight days later at age 73.

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Perfection

Perfection

Perfection is the concept of something that is completely flawless or complete.

Perfection, in the sense of being flawless, is derived from discussions by Aristotle (384-322 BCE) of privation, or deficiency. Aristotle stated that “a doctor and a musician are ‘perfect’ when they have no deficiency in respect of the form of their peculiar excellence.” In other words, a “perfect” specimen is flawless in every way with respect to its performance of its profession or its embodiment of its species. This, however, is just one sense of a concept that is key to Aristotle’s philosophy. Being good is not the same thing as being perfect. More exactly, attaining virtue involves practice; but practice never truly makes perfect because we always can do better.

The word “perfect” is a translation of the Greek teleion, a derivative of the polysemous word telos. In this context, the relevant meaning of telos is “end,” or “goal.” With this in mind, the English translation “perfect” can be understood to encapsulate the idea of being complete, of having fulfilled a goal. This was important for Aristotle because, as a matter of principle, he believed that all things exist for a reason-that is, they have some telos-and that all things naturally strive toward the fulfillment of their telos. Therefore, perfection, for Aristotle, is something all things strive for, be they a blade of grass or a human being. For Aristotle, happiness itself is the most perfect of all things. So it made sense to strive for both siblings—happiness and perfection.

In biology, Aristotle employs this notion to explain (in part) the various stages of an organism’s development-each is a step toward the fulfillment of its telos. In cosmology, however, Aristotle employs the idea very generally, suggesting that the telos of all heavy bodies invariably drives them toward a state of rest around a cosmic center point. That all heavy bodies fall to Earth is evidence that this center point is, in fact, Earth. In this way, perfection is a concept wholly entangled with geocentrism.

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Confucius on Ages of Life

Confucius on Ages of Life

Confucius says of the ages of life:

In youth when the vital forces are not yet developed, guard against sensuality in manhood, when the vital forces have attained their full strength, against quarrelsomeness; in old age, when the forces are on the wane, against avarice.

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Platonic Love

Platonic Love

Platonic love is the type of love between two people that transcends obsessive physicality.

Platonic love as it is understood today is a love between two people that is chaste, affectionate, but free of intimacy and sexual desire.

The term has its roots with the Greek philosopher Plato (c. 424-c. 348 BCE), who used it in his philosophical text The Symposium, written in c. 360 BCE. In the text, Plato dissects a series of speeches made by men at a drinking party, or symposium, held in the Athenian household of the poet Agathon. The speeches, expressed in the form of a dramatic dialogue, are written “in praise of love,” and those invited to speak include an aristocrat, a legal expert, a physician, a comic playwright, a statesman, Plato himself in the roles of both host and tragic poet, and Socrates (c. 470-399 BCE), Plato’s own teacher and one of the founders of Western philosophical thought.

It is Socrates’s speech that has since been interpreted as introducing the concept of platonic love. Socrates condemns the sort of love that sees a man and a woman obsess over the physical act of love (eras in Greek) to the detriment of the pursuit of higher ideals in philosophy, art, and science. He speaks of the ideas of a prophetess and philosopher, Diotima of Mantinea, for whom love is a vehicle through which we can contemplate the divine and possess what she calls the “good.” According to Diotima—here “teaching” with Socrates in the role of “naive examinee”—a physically beautiful person should inspire us to seek spiritual things. Her idea of love does not exclude the possibility of physical love, however; the idea that platonic love should exclude physical love altogether is a later, and quite inaccurate, Western construct.

Thomas Hardy said in Jude the Obscure (1895): “We ought to have lived in mental communion, and no more.”

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The Chicken and Egg Conundrum

The Chicken and Egg Conundrum

The age-old puzzle that if chickens come from eggs and vice versa, how do you establish which of the two existed first?

When a hen lays a fertilized egg, that hen will keep the egg warm until it hatches a chick. That chick will then grow up to become a hen and lay other eggs, repeating the process as part of an ongoing cycle. But when did this process start? What was first: the chicken or the egg? This infamous question identifies a problem of causality, a paradox in which both chicken and egg cannot exist without the other, yet there must have been a moment when one of them came first.

What existed at the beginning? How did objects, the world, animals, and humans come to be? These are the basic questions that lie at the heart of the chicken and egg conundrum. When the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BCE) asked the question, he believed that both must have always been in existence. Over the centuries the question remained a challenge to philosophers, though it became less important after English naturalist Charles Darwin (1809–82) introduced the theory of evolution by natural selection and explained the development of any organism as a process of slow progress over time.

In 2010, British researchers released the results of a study that, they claimed, conclusively proved that the chicken came first. While the solution was not universally accepted, and others claim that the egg existed prior to the chicken, the question’s importance is not solely one of biological history. The chicken and the egg conundrum prompts us to consider beginning, and how they relate to our experiences. Some theologians have answered the question by saying that the creation of the universe necessarily means that the chicken came first. Other traditions hold that time does not have a clear beginning and end, and the idea of what came first is nonsensical because all things have existed for eternity.

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