Systematic Philosophy

David Cowles

Oct 15, 2022

Some people's search takes them to Fatima or Lhasa or into Outer Space. Mine took me to the dentist.

"Systematic Philosophy," makes you think of Plato and Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas, Kant and Hegel, Heidegger and Sartre... The urge to understand the world we live in persists, but is academic philosophy the only approach? Or even the best approach? And what does it mean to understand?

We understand something in terms of something else. In other words, we find the relevant 'pattern' to explain the 'event.’ The cosmos is our 'territory' (event); we spend our lives searching for, or inventing, the best possible 'map' (pattern) of that territory. The collected works of each of the philosophers mentioned above constitutes 'maps,’ but are we limited in our search to such 'weighty tomes?’ (No, I am not speaking metaphorically. I mean 'weighty' - I challenge you to pick up all eight volumes mentioned above with one arm! Try it on TikTok or YouTube.)

The Homeric epics, for example, also constitute a map. So does the fictional prose of James Joyce (Ulysses) and the epic poetry of Ezra Pound (Cantos). The music of Bach is a spectacular map (Brandenburg Concenti) (Read ATM’s “The Meaning of Music.”), as are the paintings of Kandinsky (Read ATM’s “Is This Really All There Is?”) The list goes on...and on.

According to the Book of Job, the greatest tragedy that can befall a human being is to die 'without knowledge,’ i.e. without a satisfying map; but since by definition no map can ever perfectly reconstruct its territory, the search is never-ending. That said, I did not expect my search would take me to my dentist's office. (Some people's search takes them to Fatima or Lhasa or into Outer Space. Mine took me to the dentist.)

It is often said, "No one ever wants to go to the dentist." I can confirm that by my own experience...except for now. I cannot not wait for my next cleaning, filling, extraction, etc. A trip to the dentist means a chance to get another look at the tapestry art pictured above.

Ok, it's 'pretty,’ I guess, but that's not what attracts me. For me, it's part of the great quest (above). It's a map of the cosmos, every bit as compelling as anything Plato ever wrote, more detailed than anything we're likely to get from the Hubble. How so? It is both varied and uniform, dynamic and stable, undulating and rectilinear. It embodies the same paradoxes that make all of reality so difficult to decipher.

Alfred North Whitehead, the last of the great systematic philosophers (not listed above...but just as unhoistable), illustrated this paradox when he quoted a traditional Anglican hymn:

Abide with me,

Fast falls the eventide.

It is impossible, of course, to capture in mere words what is compelling about this quilted fabric. If it were possible, we wouldn't need the fabric, would we? On the other hand, I have never seen a piece of fabric that tells the story of The Timaeus. Reality is a mighty citadel. It takes all the weapons at our disposal to breech its towering walls. The verbal, the visual and the tonal - we need them all, and none can take the place of any other.

That said, I feel compelled to try to tell you what it is that I find so compelling in this piece. The right thing for me to do would be to point and cry out, "Ecce rem' - Behold the thing! But of course, I have no intention of doing the right thing. So, caveats in place, here we go:

The substructure of the piece is uniform but dynamic. We see it 'at the border' (on the 'frontier' so to speak), and we catch glimpses of it 'between the rain drops.’ Of course, it's a matter of gestalt. The ubiquitous pattern I'm seeing as background could just as easily be seen as the figure. What's figure, what's ground? That's in the eye of the beholder!

Proceeding as if the pattern were background, our attention is drawn to the monochrome figures that sit atop it: white triangles and blue parallelograms (diamonds). They are organized into an alternating sequence of undulating and pulsating ribbons, a dynamic version of the red and white stripes on the American flag.

Is this a New England quilt...or some Big Easy jazz? One thing for sure, the piece has both melody ('undulating') and rhythm ('pulsating'); but for me, the most interesting aspect of the work is its architecture. The disparate elements are not arranged sequentially or in monochromatic layers; rather, they are 'put together' in a distinctive and infinitely repeating pattern.

This is how I imagine brains work, not as tiny lumps of neurons with hardwired functions, but rather as vast neural networks, capable of all sorts of mental gymnastics: factual memory, communication, counter-factual dreams. etc.

This is more or less how information is stored in a computer (or on a hard drive or disk). On vinyl, the placement of the needle determines the output; on a CD, it is the address of the data. Also, the pattern of shapes on the quilt is fractal-like. It repeats with changes of scale as well as position.

Plus, it has a focus, a great mystical rest, a Sabbath of the Land. Do you see it? Once you do, it's almost impossible to move your eye off from it.

A recent breakthrough in mathematics may be helpful here. Imagine a three-dimensional lattice consisting of 100,000 points (or nodes). Now imagine injecting electricity into the lattice. Your job is to model the state of each node, n, at each moment of time, t. It had been assumed that it would take 100,000 equations to accomplish this task. Recently, a team of mathematicians demonstrated that it only takes four equations to do the job. Would you rather owe me $4 or $100,000?

How can four equations describe 100,000 data points? Easy: it’s just a matter of seeing the patterns. At Aletheia Today, patterns are what we're all about.


David Cowles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Aletheia Today Magazine. He lives with his family in Massachusetts where he studies and writes about philosophy, science, theology, and scripture. He can be reached at

Have a comment about this ATM essay Join the conversation, and share your thoughts today..