Aspects of Science, Imagination and the Mystical


Peter Coates
This talk was originally presented as part of the Poetics of Science Seminar series at Chisholme House in 1917.
An updated and revised version was also delivered at the October Gallery in April 2018 in London under the aegis of the Beshara Trust.

And therefore as a stranger give it welcome.
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
(Hamlet, Act 1 Scene 5)

Preliminary Remarks:

Delving into the Shorter Oxford Dictionary the word imagination refers, amongst other things, to the Creative Faculty of the Mind: the ability to frame new and striking concepts. This will do as our starting point and it fits neatly with the great revolutions in scientific thought.

How then is the creative imagination to be conceived? Perhaps we might conceive it as the individual (and perhaps collective) exercise of a general human propensity (or ‘creative faculty of mind’) identified at its highest in the great achievements not only in mathematics, science and technology but in art, music, philosophy, medicine, literature, religion, economics, politics, psychology and all forms of potential human emancipation, including therapy and mindfulness. It has its life-breath in these kinds of human achievements and human commitments. It may too be thought of as a gift possessed in greater and more specific measure by some than is more generally the case for others: for to some degree we all possess this creative faculty, though for some it is more dormant and relatively undeveloped.

However, as we further delve deeper into the domain of creative consciousness in the world view of Ibn ‘Arabi it would make no sense to posit a general curve of its normal distribution. Often such new and striking concepts are the result of a favourable moment of visionary insight, sometimes predicated on a long and difficult preparation and sometimes occurring in the blinking-of-an-eye or even less. It is my conviction that the understanding, meaning and essential function of the imagination cannot be fully and existentially appreciated without undertaking the profound gestalt-switch in our perception of it to which reading Ibn ‘Arabi invites us. But more of this later.

I wish to I start this talk in a very up to date manner by referring to a recent translation (2017) of Chapter 167 of Ibn ‘Arabi’s Futuhat entitled The Alchemy of Human Happiness by Stephen Hirtenstein. In his Introduction he cites the view of William Chittick that in the West ‘many philosophers have looked upon mysticism as the abandonment of any attempt to reconcile religious data with intelligent thought’ whereas although ‘Muslim mystics and philosophers have sometimes displayed a certain mutual antagonism, never does their relationship approach incompatibility’.

From the outset therefore, I will state my own view about this matter. Following the metaphysics of Ibn ‘Arabi I regard the ubiquitous presence of science and technology and even global economics (which constitute the defining hallmarks and rationally-based strategies of modernity) to be part of the Self-Disclosure of the One and only Reality in its love to be known. Therefore, there can be no ultimate ‘incompatibility’ – but there can be limits on what can be known by these enterprises and there are the too-obvious dangers of human misuse.

The great revolutions in Twentieth Century-Scientific thought include, for example, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, Quantum Physics, Genetics, Brain Science, Computational Theories of Mind and all their technological offshoots and implications. By any standard an impressive performance. But who could honestly declare given the present world-situation and in spite of the great advantages for human kind provided by these discoveries that they have brought lasting human happiness? Hardly so, one would be inclined to say. But Ibn ‘Arabi’s mystical philosophy is not aimed at stimulating external academic debates about such proposals as the Selfish Gene or anti-religious/pro-religious controversy or concerns about the implications of the strange world of quantum physics or anything of the kind.

Centrally, and by contrast, Ibn ‘Arabi’s concern is essentially transformative – it is aimed at the interior realisation and integration of the individual into a universal vision of Reality – a Reality which is omnipresent and already perfect. Or as Plotinus says: ‘the vison is there for him who will see it’. Understanding the role and nature of the theophany of the imagination in Ibn Arabi’s world-view is vital to grasping the universal and extraordinary significance which he attaches to it. In a more delimited context this process is equally vital to the conceptual revolutions in science and to creativity in general in all its forms.

Alchemy, for Ibn ‘Arabi, becomes a symbol for man’s transformation and the key to his ultimate felicity and is associated with the colour red. Interestingly, Isaac Newton was also profoundly interested in the alchemical and spent, I believe, around twenty-seven years of his life, (after he had completed his work in science and mathematics for which he is best known) on alchemical investigation. He sought the elixir of life and the philosopher’s stone which became for him a search for the secret of life itself – for he thought that the whole of created reality was in some mysterious way alive with the creative process of divinity, including metals. But let us turn now to the famous statement by Isaac Newton himself made shortly before his death:

“I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”

To limit ourselves simply to the scientific would leave untouched the vast archaeology of the whole of created reality which Ibn ‘Arab considers itself to be Imagination. So let us start by examining Ibn ‘Arabi’s remarks on this whole matter of ‘the great ocean of Truth’. Then we might delve a little into what some scientists and philosophers of science have said about the efficacy and limits of science itself.

Ibn Arabi deploys the word Imagination (khayal, in Arabic) in a special and universal sense not covered by our normal usage in English. What has been described in Ibn Arabi studies as the Metaphysics of Imagination fundamentally refers to the ongoing ‘Divine imaging underlying all of creation’. And if we take into account Ibn ‘Arabi’s universal vision of reality then the whole ever-renewed images which infinitely constitute creation are nothing other than Divine Self-Disclosure: a global on-going, conscious reality manifest fully only in the complete and perfected human being known as insani-kamil or Perfect Man. But this ongoing Divine Self-Disclosure is importantly distinguished ‘as other’, by Ibn Arabi, when considering the Unmanifested and Undifferentiated and Unique Source, or the Divine Essence Itself, from which it ‘originates’. The images constituting the infinity of the world-process, as we know it, have no substantial or independent reality of their own they are like images in a mirror or like the dream in the mind of the dreamer: their reality is ambiguous and this ambiguity both conceals and reveals.

It is the Unique Source manifesting or revealing itself in a multiplicity of its own Forms. Arabi says ‘all (relative) existence is an imagination within an imagination’ the only reality being the Source and he tells us additionally ‘that you are imagination, as is all you regard as other than yourself an imagination.’ The intrinsic ambiguity of the imagination arises because it is a bridge between the spiritual ‘inner world’ and the corporeal ‘external world’. Its reality is most certainly not groundless.

In fact, for Ibn Arabi, it is more real than sense-experience for it is prior to that experience, it always clothes itself in the images of sense-experience whilst originating in what has been called a higher ‘locus of vison’ than ‘our sensory eyes’.It requires us to discern the ambiguity of what we normally perceive and delve into its deeper perceptual meanings: to begin to read life and ourselves poetically, as it were, as symbols, metaphors and embodied meanings to be deciphered.

This is to recognise above all what Ibn Arabi calls ‘the status of imagination’. We need, therefore, to interpret the dream as its sometimes put or more simply to begin to ‘see’ for ourselves what the score really is. And in a fundamental sense this requires us to delve deeply into our interior lives.

On a personal note, it took me quite some time to recognise, even intellectually, that ordinary consciousness could act as a veil, veiling as it were a deeper reality and yet simultaneously in some subtle and sometimes-not-so-subtle manner making its presence felt – I know not how. Yet sometimes we can be in very close proximity to this kind of awareness – that is, the intimation that all life, all existence if you will, has a profound unity and purpose and as Hamlet puts it, is more than is normally ‘dreamt of in your philosophy’. But perhaps we should heed his advice and ‘as a stranger give it welcome’. At least this is my recommendation.

For Ibn Arabi such a higher locus of vison, as we might temporarily call it, is a universal possibility for man – even the reason for the existence of man at all. There are some, of course, who note quite rightly that ‘it is given to very few to lift the veil themselves.’ But this does not mean that the veil cannot be lifted for us. All I want to say and emphasise at this point is that the treatment of the creative imagination in the work of Ibn ‘Arabi cannot be conceived as fantasy or figment or self-delusion. Rather, it as an objective all-pervasive mind-independent reality enabling a direct means of perceiving intuitively the deeper hidden meanings and realities of the way ‘things’ actually are. Or, of recognising the truth (to put the matter more vividly) expressed by the ‘folk poet’ Yunus Emre in the line:

“I wrapped myself in flesh and bones
And appeared as Yunus.”

Having set the metaphysical scene a little let us head in the direction of the causal narratives of physical science and their rational scrutiny. Without a doubt the scientist’s imaginative capacity has always been acknowledged, particularly in the great conceptual revolutions in Scientific thought. Einstein himself, and others, were very clear about this as we shall see. But the source of the imagination is ultimately, for Ibn Arabi, the act of Divine Self Disclosure and it infinitely excels the limits of science and alludes to imaginal realms and imaginal worlds having a objectivity and status inaccessible to scientific methodology. In this respect the imaginative consciousness of the individual scientist is mind-dependent and its productions are human-constructions, but, nevertheless, capable of receiving inspiration and knowledge from a more universal source.

A very good modern example of this is illustrated in the life of that largely self-taught mathematical genius Ramanujan. His life and extrordinary mathematical achievements have been documented in the book The Man Who Knew Infinity and in a recent film/dvd having the same title. If we are to take seriously Ramanujan’s absolute conviction of the ascription of the origins of his extraordinary mathematical achievements to a family goddess a convictioin which exemplifies clearly (as documented in Kanigel's superb biography) that he ‘made the landscape of the Infinite, in realms both mathematical and spiritual, his home’. G H Hardy the celebrated Cambridge mathematician ‘and devout atheist’ who was later to famously collaborate with Ramanujan contrived ‘an informal scale of mathematical ability.. on which he assigned himself a 25 and Littlewood a 30. To David Hilbert, the most eminent mathematician of the day, he assigned an 80. To Ramanujan he gave 100…’

Certainly, ‘such ability could not be taught’ and generally its source remains a mystery: ‘his leaps of intuition confound mathematicians even today’. But it is the mystery, for Ibn Arabi, of the Self-Disclosure in His love to be known of which he gives us ‘signs unto the horizon and in ourselves’ – if we will see it. As Ramanujan himself put it: ’an equation for me has no meaning... unless it expresses a thought of God’.

But as we read in The Treatise on Unity (ascribed to Ibn ‘Arabi) ‘when the secret of an atom of the atoms is clear, the secret of all created things both external and internal is clear’. But if this is interpreted as implying that one day science will discover the secret of the universe this is highly mistaken and it is Ibn ‘Arabi’s treatment of the Imagination which makes this clear.

But, for the moment let us remember, more mundanely, that although much natural science rests on the triple pillars of theory-construction, observation and experimental replication the bedrock of observation is not itself unproblematical.

As Hanson points out ‘there is more to seeing than meets the eyeball’. Our cultural assumptions, expectations, experience, knowledge and prevailing theories often determine our seeing as much as the images on the retina. As Wittgenstein remarks all seeing or perception is in some profound sense ‘seeing as’. But sometimes our entrenched or cultural beliefs prevent us from recognising and ‘seeing’ or even accepting a new metaphysical or scientific vision.

Of course, we can accept that there exists a single, unique, physical world existing independently of observers, both of the scientific and the non-scientific variety. But the way the cosmos is scientifically perceived and understood, as the history of science itself manifestly illustrates, can undergo profound conceptual change. Take, for example, the Newtonian and Einsteinian views on the nature of space and time.

One interesting feature of this process of paradigm-change, as Thomas Kuhn, points out in what was his ground-breaking study, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, is that the new paradigm is often incommensurable with the old. And scientists wedded to the old paradigm may literally be unable to see things from the new perspective. Consider the following:

“During scientific revolutions, scientists see new and different things when looking with familiar instruments in places they have looked before. Familiar objects are seen in a different light and joined by unfamiliar ones as well. Scientists see the world of their research-engagement differently. Scientists see new things when looking at old objects. In a sense, after a revolution, scientists are responding to a different world. This difference in view resembles a gestalt shift, a perceptual transformation —"what were ducks in the scientist's world before the revolution are rabbits afterward.”

I will come back to Kuhn later for although there have been various criticisms (as one might expect) if we read between the lines a little it suggests to me a rather important understanding of the dispositional nature of reality. One of the criticisms worth noting (although I do not think it is fatal) is the view, that Newton’s view of absolute space and absolute time is simply an approximation to the truth of which Einstein’s space-time continuum is a better approximation and Newton’s laws of motion and theory of gravity are still operably relevant today in getting man to the moon, for example.

For the present we need to note carefully that the perceptual transformation referred to above is predicated on the normal vision of the human eye and its extended enhancement with microscopes, telescopes and other ingenious technologies. But the reference to ‘the secret of the secret of the atoms’ does not primarily refer to the vision of the human eye but to the eye of spiritual imagination capable of penetrating, like a Divine seeing, the theophanic reality of creation itself. And we are told quite categorically that for this to happen we must “Leave intellect and understand through intuition”. The relation between the talents of the discursive rational human intellect and intuition is wonderfully illustrated, as already hinted, in the film The Man who knew Infinity about the life and work of Ramanujan the largely self-taught mathematical genius.

Ibn ‘Arabi is regarded as ‘the greatest Muslim theoretician of the imagination’ and himself tells us that ‘He who does not know the status of imagination has no knowledge whatever’.

We are invited to see ourselves and our human potential and all that is in the light of this extraordinary unitive metaphysical vision and not as we are normally accustomed to think of ourselves. As we have said the imagination is a bridge or isthmus between the inner spiritual world and outer corporeal world partaking in both somewhat like a dream which clothes itself in sensual images. Or like your image in a mirror – it is both you and not-you, both God and other than God: it is ambiguous.

Such images may be visual or auditory but are not perceived with the physical eye but with the spiritual eye of imagination through intuition. Ibn Arabi talks about the corporealization of the spiritual and the spiritualisation of the corporeal. Ibn ‘Arabi does tell us interestingly, ‘everything in which you dwell is an imaginary affair and is sought for the sake of somethings else. That something else is not itself found in what you see.’

But let us be clear, the ability to differentiate between the eye of imagination and the eye of sense-perception is a divine gift given to whom God will:

“Not all who witness imaginalised bodies discern between these bodies and bodies that are real in their view. That is why the companions did not recognise Gabriel when he descended in the forms of a Bedouin. They did not know that the Bedouin was an imaginalised body until the Prophet told them so when he said that it had been Gabriel. The same situation was the situation with Mary when the angel imaginalised himself to her as a man without fault, because she had no mark by which to recognize spirits when they became embodied.”

Perhaps, however briefly, enough has been alluded to for us to realise the extraordinary vastness and significance which Ibn Arabi accords to the cosmic and human reality of the Imagination. He explains all this ’on the basis of having seen the revelatory process in action and tasted it in himself’, as Chittick and others similarly remark. It is referred to as ‘the Presence of the Imagination’ and as ‘God’s Vast World’ and ‘the manifestation of the impossible thing’: these are matters which are likely to be deemed impossible by the canons of reflective reason. These manifestations of the impossible thing are impregnated with meanings and symbols for both ‘the universe (and certain dreams) are symbols of hidden realities’. One of the most intriguing insights into this matter of the underlying objective reality of Imaginative Presence is the following:

‘...imagination stands in a degree which is posterior to sense perception’... and ‘the property of the Real in creation and creation in the Real’ produce the actual manifestation of the impossible thing in the “here before”.

In my estimation Contemplation is a practice which can sometimes facilitate a receptivity – a standing near the threshold, if you wish, of this deep realm of symbols and meanings. This realm is described as the soul’s storehouse of imagination and is inundated with images drawn ‘from the outward and inward worlds’.

Corbin in his famous study describes the active imagination 'which at once produces symbols and apprehends them. The symbol announces a plane of consciousness distinct from that of rational evidence; it is a ‘cipher’ of a mystery, the only means of saying something that cannot be apprehended in any other way; a symbol is never ‘explained’ once and for all, but must be deciphered over and over again, just as a musical score is never deciphered once and for all, but calls for ever new execution’.

Having said all this about the central role of the imagination for Ibn ‘Arabi’s visionary metaphsyics – all of it germain to the present purpose – it must be balanced by a full recognition of the Unity of All Existence which pervades and transcends the multiplicities of the imaginal worlds. But given the present rubric let further consider the question now of modern science, imagination and scientific truth.

The basic and somewhat dominant question asked about science, usually in relation to natural science, is what constitutes its defining characteristic and accounts for it prodigious successes? Kuhn says, for instance, that it is the rigidity and discipline of science that makes it so effective in problem solving”. But what is the key feature which constitutes the discipline of science?

For the Vienna Circle of the late 1920’s it was its Principle of Verification that hailed its success. The aim here was to distinguish science from pseudo-science and distinguish acceptable science from metaphysical non-sense. It was therefore a fundamental attack on metaphysics: the pseudo-propositions of religion were considered as nonsensical and as meaninglesss as the claim “the cube root of three is having a nice day”. But they failed to formulate their beloved Verification Principle in a logically satisfactory manner: it either left too much in or kept too much out. And equally it was the Verification Principle which itself could not be verified and was, therefore, accordingly itself a piece of metaphysics of the kind which they openly disavowed. I don’t think that there are any remaining Logical Positivists still around.

Then along came Karl Popper who insisted that scientific statements of the kind “All x’s are y’s” cannot be conclusively verified – eg all litmus paper when dipped in acid turns red – because the conclusion always goes beyond any number of confirmed observations or as David Hume puts it ‘it transcends observed experience’. Therefore, Popper concludes ‘that the acceptance of a law or theory is tentative only: which is to say that all laws and theories are conjectures’.

The opening heading of Popper’s famous book Conjectures and Refutations humorously demonstrates what he is getting at: Mr. Turnbull had predicted evil consequences, . . . and was now doing the best in his power to bring about the verification of his own prophecies. (Antony Trollope)

So falsifiability became the hallmark of good science – productive science should aim to specify what will falsify its proposed theory or hypothesis and rigorously test it in this respect. Hence, astronomy was OK but astrology not. It resulted in some claiming that the best we can have in science are interesting falsehoods. But according to Popper there is nevertheless cumulative progress in science as it approaches ‘truth’ through more and more accurate approximations: what he called verisimilitudes’. How this is possible unless you already know what the ‘truth’ is is never fully explained. And neither can you predict that the next new revolutionary theory is going to be an even more accurate approximation because it would require one to already possess the theory it predicts. But for Karl Popper what we have at most are the best scientific time-capsuled bold conjectures about the way the universe is. They are the best scientifically grounded guesses available to us. But who knows the universe may in the future change and invalidate those conjectures or, in some infinite dimension of the universe unknown to us it may have already changed or not be applicable.

Neither verificationism nor falsifiability succeeded in establishing an a-historical criteria of demarcation for identifying science from pseudo-science and from so called metaphysical non-sense. In fact, the whole attempt to define science by a single principle of demarcation was eventually toppled. It simply wouldn’t do the trick. For the inductivist view that the scientific method is the collection of observed instances and then generalising to ‘all’(eg all gases expand when heated) is not a logically valid argument and as we have seen does not gaurantee the conclusion that the ‘all’ is true no matter how great the number of true observations. As the well-known story attributed to Betrand Russell attests concerning the turkey who after repeated observations concluded that it was always fed at 9am but come Christmas Eve it was proved emphatically wrong. The other widely held model of scientific method was the hypothetico-deductive account in which the scientist proposes an hypothesis and formulates the results in a deductive form which can, therefore, be conclusively falsified by a single disconfirming instance.

As Karl Popper remarks:

The history of science , like the history of all human ideas, is history of irresponsible dreams, of obstinacy, and of error...but science is one of the few human activities – perhaps the only one – in which errors are systematically criticised and fairly oft, in time corrected. This is why we can say, in science, we often learn from our mistakes and why we can speak clearly and sensibly about making progress there.

But when such findings of the demarcationists (of the verificationist or falsificationist kind) were tested by historical comparison with the way actual sciences were conducted on the ground as it were then the whole story takes on a different hue. It was Thomas Kuhn who proposed a new historiography of science – a re-writing of the history of science – which richly illustrates, for example, that scientist do not give up their theories on the basis of apparently falsifying or recalcitrant evidence – if they think their theory is good one they will rightly hold onto it in spite of the difficulties. There is an interesting principle of tenacity at work.

Copernicus’ heliocentric theory of the universe is often cited as a good example of this principle, illustrated with the issue of the falling stone from the leaning Tower of Pisa. It wasn’t until Galileo’s development of the mechanics of the parabola that the problem of why, if the earth was spinning, did the stone not land at some distance from the foot of the tower? The problem was whether or not (as Copernicus theory suggested) the earth was actually spinning. This seemingly counter-evidence was not satisfactorily dealt with until almost a century ‘after the publication of Copernicus’s major work’ and this was due to Galileo’s work on the mechanics of the parabola and it horizontal movement.

According to Kuhn’s investigation into the actual historiography of science there is not really detectable any simple single demarcation formula discernible in the historical complexities of the history of the sciences. Kuhn introduced a distinction between Normal Science and Revolutionary Science. Normal Science is cumulative and its practioners work and research within an agreed paradigm (say, Newtonian physics) with new knowledge filling gaps of ignorance. By radical contrast Revolutionary Science (say, Einstein’s) is discontinuous and non-incremental and non-cumulative vis-a-vis what was taken as the prior normal paradigm. Converted scientists to the new paradigm do not merely reinterpret old data but they fundamentally re-examine the foundations that they had taken for granted before. As we have already seen for Kuhn - when paradigms change ‘the world’ itself changes with them: a perceptual change in the way the world is viewed. These considerations lead him to say In chapter X111 of Kuhn’s famous book in his discussion of the nature of scientific progress and in contra-distinction to Popper’s view of scientific progress:

“We may, to be more precise, have to give up the notion, explicit or implicit, that changes of paradigm carry scientists and those who learn from them closer and closer to the truth”.

He argued that the reason one paradigm replaces another is because one solves puzzles better, not because it represents reality more accurately. But as we shall interesting see it is not only Kuhn who takes this view of scientific truth. But, for Kuhn, such a view in no way denies the status of science to produce ‘the greatest and most original burst of creativity of any human enterprise’ which clearly acknowledges the fundamental role of the human imagination in producing what Popper memorably characterised as the fundamental conjectural puzzle-solving potential of great science.

We have travelled some way. So let us just see what Einstein himself said about the epistemological basis of science as a form of knowledge and the intrinsic role of the imagination in such a process. Consider the following:

“...the external conditions which are set for [the scientist] by the facts of experience do not let himself be too much restricted, in the construction of his conceptual world, by adherence to an epistemological system. He, therefore, must appear to the systematic epistemologist as a type of unscrupulous opportunist”.

Einstein’s conceptual world of ‘thought experiments’ clearly allowed him not to be unduly confined by what had gone before or to be constricted by any previous system of scientific epistemology or what was taken as incorrigible scientific ‘fact’. His ‘thought experiments’ may appear as ‘unscrupulous’ and (dare we say it) even ‘preposterous’ to those wedded to a strictly inviolable methodological system or to previously established or alleged scientific ‘facts’. Surely, if anything, Einstein’s conceptual architecture would count as what Popper called a bold conjecture which takes real risks. It was certainly risk taking in its assertions and abductive and intuitive in its conclusions with little to go on sometimes. Abduction is a good word to use: seeing a great deal from very little – a kind of conceptual imaginative leap ahead beyond the available evidence or beyond what little evidence there was, if any. Einstein also possessed an extraordinary sense of the creative power of the human imagination. Consider the following:

“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”
“I think that only daring speculation can lead us further and not accumulation of facts.”
“The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination”

I suspect here that Einstein’s understanding of the role of imagination is potentially quite vast and although he primarily applied it to the understanding of cosmological reality he was deeply influenced by Spinoza’s metaphysics. Einstein does say ‘I believe in Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists’. He seems, to me, to be very much attracted to the more impersonal aspects of Spinoza’s metaphysics for Einstein himself suggests that his own interest is ‘not in a God who concerns himself with the fates and actions of human beings’. A little strange this for someone who has ‘unbounded admiration for the structure of the world’ but fails to penetrate more deeply into man’s place in the overall cosmological picture. There seems no sense of man’s spiritual potential. Compare this to Ibn Arabi’s ‘God has so exalted Man... that he has placed under his control all that is in the heavens and the earth, from its highest to its lowest’.

But now let us try and bring out of all this discussion what is implicit and of central importance that is: the emerging picture of the dispositional nature of reality itself, including physical, psychological, social and spiritual reality. Rom Harre, remarks concerning the discovery of electricity and magnetism:

“These dispositions were there in the world...but had to be discovered. Now the world is a very rich source of dispositions – physicists are forever discovering new ones – but we have to have the right equipment to bring them out. This same idea has application in psychology. There are many things of which a person is capable but we do not know what they are until they are put in the right circumstances”

What allows these dispositions to be discovered in the physical world he calls ‘affordances’. We might say that in the psychological and social world ‘education’ is just such an affordance allowing the potential powers and individual capacities of people to display themselves, even when sometimes the individuals or groups of individuals are ‘surprised’ by what they can achieve and what potential they have: this may lend some credence to the claim that people may be far from having a fixed or unalterable natures. This makes self-realisation a crucial process in knowing ourselves. The physical affordances in physics Harre suggests ‘arise purely in the context of human construction and the technical term for this – for a disposition which comes about from something a human being [a scientist in our case] has manufactured - is ‘affordance’.

In relation to physical reality Harre points out post-Newtonian quantum physicists can no longer seek for ‘things’ “but must look for dispositions and affordances and that... we have more and more reason for thinking that the universe is composed of a field of energy, rather than thinking of it as composed of lots of little chunky bit of matter.”

And he cites the wave-particle duality in illustration of two sorts of response both of which depend on the different nature of the experimental apparatus deployed. If we force the world to display itself in one way, then it loses the properties it would have had, had we not done so; in other words, if we force it to become a spot, it cannot also be spread out over the rest of the universe as a wave’.

To make this point very clear all that we have at our disposal are affordances and it makes no sense to ask what is reality really like beyond the affordances: this we cannot say it remains an insoluble mystery an absolute unknown. But, according to Harre, it does not present an insoluble philosophical problem. The principle here is that ‘reality’ reveals itself in terms of how it is approached.

In my own writings I contextualise and generalise this matter in terms of Ibn ‘Arabi’s metaphysical vision as follows: axiomatically there is no reason why reality could not disclose paradoxical aspects of itself. In the metaphysics of Ibn Arabi’s we see the use of apparent paradox to convey the nature of spiritual reality itself. As we hinted at the beginning of the talk Ibn ‘Arabi’s understanding of the imagination as an isthmus or bridge which both links and separates (is both this and not this) is a paradox which can engender a gestalt-switch in our understanding of something that ‘cannot be [fully] apprehended in any other way’. For example, “the Creator is Created”, “I am He and not He”, “Union without Union” and so on. It is left up to us to read intuitively between the lines, as it were.

But let us delve more into the general idea of ‘reality’ as being of such a dynamic nature that it configures itself to the way we grapple with it for, if true, it makes our beliefs about, or approach to reality, pivotal. It is interesting to me that this point should throw some light on Ibn ‘Arabi’s insistence of the conformity of reality to the ‘servant’s opinion of it’. This Akbarian insight needs to be understood with care for it is not the case that reality always conforms to our opinion of it, for often it simply does not. The point is a much more interesting and far-reaching one. It is the view that our dispositions, beliefs and practises radically affect what reality can show (or not) of its deepest recesses and universality. Ultimately, for Ibn Arabi, we are dealing with a picture of the self in its primordial universal condition a point of vision (or locus of awareness) which possesses “no essential characteristic other than totality and absoluteness”.
Ibn Arabi’s ontology is not an ontology of ‘many things’ but an ontology of a ‘disposition to appear as’ or, to put it in the language of Ibn Arabi, “a love to be known”. And the basic more-than-human-affordance which is capable of revealing such Beauty and Love is the transformative nature of Self-knowledge.

If you want, it is the energy of love that permeates and forever creates the ongoing infinity of creation - however veiled it may sometimes be. And we are reminded of (again perhaps somewhat paradoxically) of the fundamental Akbarian assertion that the ‘World is illusion but the Truth in Truth’.

Newton’s famous self-assessment “I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore…. whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me” is surely a salutary reminder to us all and an invitation to discover – but this time in our interior reality – that great ocean of truth and life whose Essence is Beauty and whose movement is Love.

This is the Ground of Beneficence and Self-Knowledge and how easy it is to forget this and to be ‘swept... away...with the sweeping winds of change’.
With immense insight and a certain ironic humour Soren Kiekegaard, the famous Danish Nineteenth-Century existentialist philosopher reminds us:

The greatest hazard of all, losing oneself, can occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all. No other loss can occur so quietly; any other loss – an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife etc – is sure to be noticed.

Thank you.

Peter Coates, 2018




The Alchemy of Human Happiness


Sir Isaac Newton


Yunus Emre


Srinivasa Ramanujan (1887–1920)


Thomas Kuhn (1922–1996)