Posts Tagged ‘philosophy’

Once upon a time, I was a philosophy student. Now I might be somewhat biased, but in my opinion, a philosophical training is an optimum preparation for psychotherapy training. This is no surprise when you consider that philosophy originally arose as an expression of humanity’s need to answer exactly the kinds of Big Questions that sit at the heart of much human suffering: how do I know the world is real? Is there life after death? What is the meaning of life? What *is* life?

For the ancient Greeks, philosophy was already a form of therapy. I translate philosophy as love of wisdom, philo being the love part, and sophia being the wisdom part. It can be rendered as love of knowledge, but I think this fails to capture the point of engaging in philosophy in the first place.

Philosophy isn’t about knowing stuff; it’s about becoming wise. If philosophical insight doesn’t lead to an enriched sense of being, then it is a grape that has withered on the vine. One of my most painful experiences during my studies of philosophy was realising that a disturbing proportion of academic philosophy was constituted of sour grapes! The main problem is that philosophy has been split in the West into the analytical or anglo-american tradition and the continental tradition. The former focuses on intellect, the latter on intuition.

In my opinion, wisdom is a fusion of the two. Possibly a discussion for another day.

One of the unique challenges about being a philosophy student is that every other student thinks they know what philosophy is. This invariably gets expressed in the following dialogue:

Other: So what are you studying?
Me: Philosophy.
Other: Ahhhhh, but if a tree falls in a forest when no one’s around does it make a sound?
Me: No, it doesn’t.
Other: … I need to go over there now.

There is a good reason for asking a question as preposterous as ‘if a tree falls in a forest when no one’s around does it make a sound?’. Which, of course, is to provoke the student into thinking about their assumptions. The point in this case being that sound is a sensation, and that sensation is created by the creature that experiences that sensation. When a tree falls in the forest, it makes vibrations in the air; these vibrations need to be converted into the experience of sound by one with ears to hear. If Alfred the Evil Scientist were to eradicate all beings capable of hearing from the universe, there would be no such thing as sound.

The point of the thought experiment is to provoke serious thought about the nature of sensation, and this is very important for the practice of psychotherapy. Has it occurred to you, for example, that absolutely everything you experience is your own creation? Seriously. I can hear a car’s engine right now. That means that vibrations in the air have reached my ear, vibrated some sensitive bones, rippled through some fluid, been converted into electric impulses, then been converted into the experience of sound by my brain.

Question: where is the sound of the car’s engine located?

Answer 1: In the car’s engine.
Answer 2: In the stretch of air between the car’s engine and my ear.
Answer 3: In my ear.
Answer 4: In my brain.

In a way, sound is located in all four places because all four places are needed in order for sound to be possible. The experience of sound, though, is located in my brain. I can locate with a good degree of accuracy where the source of the sound is, and experience the sound as existing over there. But that’s projection; I experience as coming from something else what is actually being created by me. Yes, the car’s engine is vibrating the air, but the form the experience takes is my creation. Hence why we can only hear sound waves within a certain range of frequencies; our auditory equipment has physical limits that shape what it is possible for us to experience.

Vibrations are not sound; vibrations are one causal factor in the creation of sound. If you experience sound in your dreams, where are the vibrations? Nowhere; you create the experience of sound.

This is why the gestalt idea of need configuring the field is so important; we create our experience of our environment. The experience we create is heavily shaped by our needs. As we make our way through the world we live in, there is an infinite scope for what could come to our attention. So why is it that we focus our attention on this thing here rather than that thing over there? Why am I writing a blog post about the link between philosophy and psychotherapy rather than some other subject? Why am I writing a blog post rather than doing one of a myriad other things that are possible for me right now? And so on.

The fundamental lesson of the tree falling in the forest is the insight that I create my experience of the world. Now, if you really want to explode your mind a second, just take a look around you. Everything you’re seeing is your own creation. Light has entered your eyes, impacted your retinas, been converted into electric impulses that have fired along your optical nerves into your brain where you have converted those impulses into the experience of sight.

The reason we get such a sense of awe and majesty when we stand in a high place and see a sprawling panoramic is, I think, because at some level we know that we are creating that panoramic for ourselves. Every experience we have is our own creation. Which means that the possibilities available to us at any given time are also our own creation. Philosophers get lost in academic wrangles about technical points because that’s what they need to do to sustain an academic career (publish or perish as the saying goes). The real purpose of philosophy is to be a vehicle by which, through contemplation, we arrive at insight, wisdom, and peace.

That said, every insight raises more questions. Such as, if I create my own experience, then what is the nature of the external source of that experience and how can I know that there is one? Gestalt’s answer is that all experience occurs at the contact boundary between my self and my environment. No vibrations, no sound. No creature capable of hearing, no sound. Not only do both exist together, but one cannot exist without the other. The very idea of vibrations in the air necessitates the existence of something that can conceive of such a notion. In order to conceive of such a notion, some phenomena must provoke the conception of such a notion. The two cannot be pulled apart.

Did you ever do the bar magnet and iron filings experiment at school? You take a bar magnet and place a piece of plain paper on top. Then you sprinkle iron filings over the paper. This makes the bar’s magnetic field visible.

This provides an excellent example of the contact boundary because it’s only possible to know of a field by giving shape to it, and the shape the field takes is determined in equal measure by the nature of the field and the nature of the medium the field is influencing. The two make contact and produce an experiential skin. And that gives rise to the gestalt concept of contact. Nothing has a ‘true nature in and of itself’ because nothing exists in and of itself, everything exists in, and is shaped by, some context.

Even the laws of physics fail to express the true nature of an objective reality independent of human experience. The very idea of a human being defining something that is independent of human experience is actually quite amusing because the very act of definition demonstrates the subjectivity of the thing defined; we must necessarily define it in human terms.

And that means that reality, human reality, isn’t just relative; it’s relational.


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