No Hay Camino, se hace camino al andar
The purpose of the blog is simply to advance on philosophical themes covered in Jack’s Path. I am sure however that this will take us well beyond those key topics considered there. Philosophy, has famously been described as a journey, the journey being more important than the arrival. I’ve often found the Camino itself to be exactly the same. Nonetheless, philosophy is about trying to find answers, the final answers may well put an end to philosophical exploration. Yet those answers are far from having an answer today.
My own experience of walking caminos, is that there were no shortage of people asking the great philosophical questions. The Camino is one of the best places to ponder these questions, and therefore the perfect setting for a book that considers the great questions of philosophy.
Jack’s Path explores many of the current themes in Philosophy, from Ethics, to the place of religion, from epistemology to existentialism.
I should have been returning today from completing the Camino Primitivo. It had taken months of planning and not a little training to get ready. Like so many of us, my plans were thwarted. However, I can still get out for some local walks with my family, in that time in the day when we are allowed to break out of our houses and stroll out into the woods to take our prescribed exercise. Today my twelve year daughter and I had started talking about the idea of time.
It takes a while for her to get into her conversational stride on these walks, but when she has taken off her headphones, and then petered out on her discussion about friendships and school, she tends to throw in something quite profound. It is such a wonderful time in life for her I often feel, to start questioning how things are, to have the first glimpses of wonder. I was not sure however, if I could explain what I thought about this topic to a twelve year old.
Time, for many of us, will have taken on a new perspective over the course of the lock-down. For some, time will be going very slowly indeed. If you are in an apartment in a city centre with three young children, it probably can’t go quick enough. But the introverts amongst you, being isolated for a few weeks is simply heaven.
Time, then, appears to us to be subjective. It is.
Time appears to be a mental construct. It is.
Time is not a duration, not a continuation of events, not past, present and future, as we have traditionally thought.
The first thing we need to note about time is that is is ‘localised’. There is no universal time ‘T’ that we can measure our own time against to check if my time is correct over someone else’s time. We cannot compare both our times. I cannot say that me writing now has a corresponding time ‘now’ in Alpha Centuri (over 4 light years away). There is no ‘now’ that we can both say is the ‘Actual Time’. Time is only relevant to a localised space around us. ‘Now’ has no meaning outside of our own ‘locality’ and is confined to the the speed of light. That is to say, it makes sense if I am talking to you face to face as the distance of space and time is so small, but not if you are on the moon. Equally, time is not the same for someone who is even living just a few metres above us. The time difference is less obvious, indeed negligible to our perception, but it is different nonetheless. We can measure that time difference over mere centimetres. We have known this since Einstein wrote his theory of General Relativity.
The second thing that we should note about time, is that it isn’t real! That is to say that the in the world itself, Time is not there in the way that we normally understand it. The fact that we have various ways of capturing the passing of time, is a red-herring. As above, it is only localised time we are capturing, but also it is misleading to think that we are capturing the passing of time itself. Essentially, time is our perspective of the ‘entropy’. Entropy is the fact that everything in the universe moves towards disorder. Entropy means that our bodies start breaking down, it means that the energy in stars will fizzle out, and that the fate of the universe will be dark place with no life. Entropy is irreversible, that is what we perceive as history. As with so many things, our mind is constructing a reality for us so that we can comprehend our world. It is not a perfect system of course (evident by the fact that we have blind spots). We are simply observing that phenomenon of entropy, and our minds are constructing that as time, as the passing of events.
Time then is real enough for us, our mind makes sense of the world itself. Our memories, our context, produces meaning for us, from what strangeness is the physics of time.
Time is subjective, and time is a mental construct. Interestingly, Immanuel Kant had a very similar view in his idea of time being a construct but that the world is really there, a sort of compromise between the 17th Century views on Rationalism and Empiricism.
We are important as part of the equations, and this is significant. In the book Jack’s Path, Jack is pulled between these two ideas, can we have a purely reductionist view of the universe, or can we just ignore the science. For a satisfactory understanding of life, we have to aim at a synthesis of the two.
All of this might be little consolation to you in what is for many a difficult time. But the lock-down has given us a chance to take a deep breath, and ponder things away from the usual concerns that take up our time. To go for a walk, and ponder the nature of reality itself. I can’t think of a better way to use that time.
My twelve year old daughter said that she understood, and that we had walked for too long. I did not think we had walked for that long and told her so. She protested, that is only your perspective. ‘Can we go home now’.
In the novel, Jack runs into this discussion initially with Ivana and Vladimir. Subsequently, the discussion arises again with other encounters. No true attempt at understanding our place in the world can avoid this entanglement. It is a vast area to cover, and I suspect this will need to be addressed again in further posts.
The discussion with Vladimir opens up with the idea of causality, that we can find an answer to the present situation (in the novel, the stage is the half-built houses in Ciruena), prompting the question whether we ourselves are equally a product of our past. That is to say, if our thoughts are equivalent to our brain, and our brain is equivalent to the atoms and synaptic events in our brain, then we can see our thoughts in terms of input and output. We are not masters of that material, (neither at the start of our existence as this is dependent on our DNA, nor throughout our lives as we are a result of our environment and culture), and therefore we are determined. Determined, Biologically, Culturally, Psychologically or via Behaviourism.
Not predestined, however. That is a related but different story.
It is an attractive theory, I can see that if I drink a cup of coffee, or something stronger, it causes an effect upon me, it can change the way I think. Input – output. It is simple:
Ivan Pavlov, Russian (hence why Ivana and Vladimir are Russian in the novel) gave us the theory of classical conditioning. B. F. Skinner, through operant conditioning, births the idea that we can control animals and humans. Input – output. The brain will learn through re-enforcement and repetition.
Freud, proposed the idea of the sub-conscious, our conscious mind is not in control, rather we are controlled by unseen forces that we cannot see.
Can we see what you are thinking? Perhaps, if your mind is calibrated when it sees an object, then we would know what you are thinking if we saw the same areas of activity in your brain if it was being scanned at the time. Thoughts are things then? They have a physical presence in the brain. Our thoughts can be reduced to atoms?
Richard Dawkins states that we are the product of our genes, our evolutionary past. Through millions of years of adaptation to best find an advantage in our environments, we are merely the result of that process.
The ‘I’ is therefore an illusion. It is a useful mis-concept that allows us to persevere, to think we are important, it is merely a by-product of our brain. We could, still survive, act, without consciousness. We do it, more or less, when we are on auto-pilot, whilst driving a car, you can have thoughts but no will or consciousness of the driving itself.
So where is the ‘You’ in all of this?
‘Are you an illusion?’ is the title of Mary Midgley’s book. I believe her to be one of the most profound philosophers of the twentieth century, far more important, time will show, than the more popular philosophers such as Richard Dawkins (who has little by the way of serious philosophy only strident assertions) and the more established philosophers such as A J Ayer and Wittgenstein. She rightly asserts that the key to understanding all debates is a right view on what human nature is. Hence ‘Midgie’ attempts to explain this view on human nature.
And that view is simply this. The reductionist, material monist, evolutionary view fails.
It fails because it is not a useful explanation of what human beings are.
That is not because evolutionary theory, or behaviourism, or theories of the sub-conscious are not true.
Primarily we are will, and that will can overcome our conditioning.
We need to be fully aware of that background, that context of how we are built, but we are not chained by that.
We can change our mind…and we can still do good and evil.
And once we realise that our choices have significance, we can be truly good again….and truly human.
The Little Priest, the catalyst for Jack’s enquiry about sacred texts, along with the discussion further along the Way with Mariam and Fatimah, form the basis for an understanding together of Sacred Texts. The dialogue illustrates that though both are Sacred Texts, they are of a very different composition and often, for most adherents to the corresponding faiths, the texts are understood quite differently as well. Too often they are discussed in the same breath, yet this is too radically misrepresent them.
Without going into a full analysis of either, there are a few observations that might be made.
The first is that the idea of Sacred Texts are part of a wider discussion, in Philosophy it might come under an epistemological concern, ‘Can we believe anything that is not given directly to the senses’. Sacred Texts have both an historical context, and a faith claim. Both are important to the validity of a text.
Theologically speaking, the question will come under the Faith vs Reason debate, is one entitled to believe something entirely on the basis of faith.
The Faith and Reason question has a counterpart: The debate as to how people can come to know God. This is either through Revealed Theology, from Sacred Scripture, or through Natural Theology, observation of the world around us.
This draws us in turn into the question of the relationship between Religion and Science, an area that I will turn to when we look at later chapters in the book.
The debate between Faith and Reason has a long history, it includes theologians and philosophers such as Thomas Aquinas, Anselm, Moltmann, Barth, in fact in some way or another they all addressed this question, including St. Paul himself.
For now however, returning to the question of the place of scripture and how it is dealt with in the text, it is sufficient to say that Jack’s conclusion is that the texts must be given a context, they must be cited in their history, and in this regard the approaches to the Bible and the Qur’an are quite different.
It is not really rationally possible to see the Bible as the direct, unmediated word of God. We know too much about its construction, and we know that the Bible is at the very least mediated through a human prism. It is constructed by the hand of humans. That is not to say that it is not inspired, that is a belief of course, but it is not unmediated, it is not given to us directly from God. A quick comparison between Luke and Matthew’s Gospel soon shows that they are edited and have a bias.
Equally, as with the discussion with Mariam and Fatimah, a text has to be understood and to be open to being analysed in a historical setting. If a text has changed, has been edited, or if a text has historical claims, it has to be open to being challenged about those claims. If it is not, it’s faith claims have to be equally be questioned. This is true of all sacred texts.
Thus Jack, Fr. Tom, Mariam and Fatimah all fall into the Reason side of that debate, and seek historical evidence for the setting of those texts.
However, as Fr. Tom explains, there are still truths to be found in the Bible, both for those who still see the text as inspired, and those that do not.
And as evident with the discussion with David, we have to be careful too not to hold up Reason as the ultimate tool for truth……
The Camino’s essence: It is a walk through Nature. It is a dialogue with Nature. Such a beautiful landscape, and the divine is seen more clearly through these paths than with anything else that I know. Some have the fortune, it would seem, to encounter the divine immediately, most do not. Some find the divine in others and in ourselves, rarely. Though the spark of the divine is meant to hold us closer to divinity in the Genesis story, we are more often bound to the Fall.
I find the sublime most easily in such tranquil scenes as this, scenes that ascend thoughts:
‘In which the heavy and the weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world,
Is lightened:—that serene and blessed mood,
In which the affections gently lead us on,—
Until, the breath of this corporeal frame
And even the motion of our human blood
Almost suspended, we are laid asleep
In body, and become a living soul:
While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things.’
As so it lifts the weight of the world from us, elevating our thoughts.
And so what better inspiration for Jack to start his journey, than with the paean of the great Lake Poet, Wordsworth, urging us to find the sublime there.
The figure of Tzu, a spirit enfleshed as a guru from the South East Asian tradition, manifests as such, since the idea of the divine in nature is most marked, perhaps, in the religious expressions from those regions. In Hinduism for example, the concept of the divine nature is inherent to its understanding of Brahman, the Cosmic Principle. In Buddhism equally, there is a moral call to respect all life, and hence the ahimsa symbol is the first mark for Jack : Do no harm.
The parallel position in Western philosophy is something like Panentheism, and over recent years this has pushed itself more to the forefront of Christian ideas about God’s interaction with the universe. In place of a God, sub specie aeternitatis we have the God of Meister Eckhart , an imminent God, infused in nature, yet still transcendent.
The Ashimsa mark, and Tzu’s guidance, consciously mark Jack’s Path at the beginning of his journey, as an expression of the Primacy of Nature in the story, that the Camino allows one to transcend through nature.
The later discussion with Tzu in Triacastela continues on the same theme. Triacastela similarly pulls one back in to nature, this was the last great scenic day, as from Sarria onwards, one becomes awake again to civilization. On this day’s walk, the route is breathtaking throughout.
The natural back-drop to a contemplation of the pressing need to protect the earth, and a pressing need for a clear philosophy on which to find it. Tzu’s message, that humans are at the central to the planets needs, and that our children, and generation of children have a right to be able to enjoy the Earth. No better place on the Camino, to press home the need for a sustainable future.
The Tattoo serves as a mnemonic, as a testimony and reminder to Jack of his journey. For the reader, it is a summary of the ideas that are encountered and addressed in the story, though as is always the case with philosophy, it may well be that the reader does not find their own answers in the various solutions given to these problems in the story. The responses in the story are those that I thought were worthy of appraisal, and so it is the reader’s task to refine their own views as they encounter the philosophical conundrums in the story.’
It should be reasonably obvious, particularly for anyone who has studied some philosophy, that the some of the people Jack encounters are well known philosophers from History, and they are naturally propounding their own views. David Hume, who Jack meets, expands on his own view of empiricism and its repercussions. Such a view, whilst precise, logical and attractive, seems to fall well short of a complete understanding of the human condition, and Jack intuitively grasps this in his conversations. Hence the meeting with these historical philosophers is to explain to the reader where the crux discussions in philosophy have been over the years. In some cases, I am aware, that these discussions are lengthy, however cutting the philosophy down to its bare bones would run the risk of ‘infantilising’ the philosophy itself, and therefore it is too easy to misconstrue the argument or put them up as a ‘straw man’ argument – too easy to refute and therefore the point missed.
The completion of the tattoo, whereby Jack had learned all the lessons he needed to learn to overcome the challenge of Mara’s philosophy, opens up a further insight to him that would appear to answer all his questions, and more importantly, allow Jack to live a good and meaningful life, something which he was unable to do after Mara had explained his own nihilism to Jack.
It is my understanding, that the philosophical and theological questions that are key today are very much issues that have been well addressed in the past. There is little new under the sun in philosophy. The ideas however are expressed again anew in each era. And so, the paintings Jack’s room in San Jean Pied de Port, the challenges of Mara and Jack’s own life set up those key philosophical questions that we face, and the tattoos keep a record of those whilst in time becoming a key to further insight and meaning.
The book ‘Jack’s Path’ is set on the Camino Frances, starting in San Jean Pied de Port at the foot of the Pyrenees. Jack accomplishes the journey in about 20 days, and the places where Jack stops were the same places where I had the pleasure of stopping on the route as well. Hence the journey is broken down into these sections. I am not at all sure that I would recommend trying to do the walk in 20 stages, though some will do this since that will accord with their own spirituality and their schedule and fitness levels. I prefer doing my Caminos in one event, and my time was limited to three weeks.
Like Jack, I was compelled to take the Valcarlos route, where Jack discovers the history of the route of Charlemagne’s army. This part of the journey is probably the toughest of the days on a Camino that I had done given the distance to Viskaretta, and given the inclement weather on that day along with the steep climbs. The snow came down very suddenly and with force, so that it was impossible to find one’s direction. In the story, Jack learns of a couple of pilgrims who had not returned, and as I myself came into Roncesvalles, there was a general panic amidst the conversations that I had that day. Two pilgrims had not arrived at Roncesvalles.