Paul P. Mealing

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Saturday, 24 November 2007

Is evolution fact? Is creationism myth?

Most people reading this already have preconceived answers, but they would be pushed to defend them beyond: 150 years of scientific investigation can’t be wrong, or the Bible is the ‘Word of God’. At the heart of this, however, lies another question altogether: what constitutes truth? In fact, it was tempting to title this essay, What is truth? But I wished the topic to be more specific. Truth is often subjective, and objective truth only becomes apparent over time. Truth usually requires longevity in our cognitive world to gain validity. But truth can also be found in myth in the form of allegory. To give a biblical example, the story of the good Samaritan is a parable, but many would argue it contains a profound truth about human nature. Is the Genesis story also allegorical? I will return to this point later.

To bring the discussion back to the topic at hand, one needs to ask another question: are there any scientific facts? Many philosophers, perhaps most, would argue that the answer is no. They would say that all scientific ‘facts’ or ‘truths’ are contingent, meaning tomorrow (any tomorrow) we may find evidence to the contrary, no matter what we’ve observed in the past. For example, we all assume the sun will rise tomorrow, but it may not, and certainly one day it will not. This is an extreme example, but let’s look at the same example in another way. Does the earth go around the sun or does the sun go around the earth? One of these is true and the other false, which means, that as far as I’m concerned, the one that is true is a ‘fact’.

Now, 400 years ago, this very question was a huge issue: cost Galileo his job, almost his life. 400 years is not that long ago, if one considers that Western philosophy and science started with the Ancient Greeks about 2500 years ago, and astronomy had been practiced by a number of cultures well before then. But even 400 years ago, the answer to one of these questions was still a fact. Either the earth went around the sun, or it didn’t; there was nothing contingent about it. It didn’t go around the sun today and do something different tomorrow, or next year, or next millennium. It’s just that, at the time, it was still a disputable fact. It was a fact awaiting proof, if you like, which eventually came from Johannes Kepler using Tycho Brahe’s observations. Now, in case you think the Church was just being bloody-minded (which they were), the Vatican’s astronomer had a very good argument to counter Galileo. He said that if the earth went round the sun as Galileo claimed then why didn’t we observe a parallax shift against the distant stars over a one year period? The reason was that the stars were much further away than anyone could possibly imagine, and so the necessary parallax adjustment wasn't observable with the instruments of the day. It’s a bit like the argument Columbus had convincing people that if he sailed far enough west he would eventually encounter Asia. The boffins of their time knew his calculations were incorrect and he would only be half way there, which is why they were against his mission, not because they thought the earth was flat.

The reason I’ve spent so much time on this one topic is because it’s a similar situation of religion versus science, though, arguably, evolutionary theory is in a stronger position today than Galileo’s position was 400 years ago, because the arguments against Galileo were not as ignorant as people think, and Galileo was up against a 1400 year old theory (Ptolemy's). So are there any scientific truths? The only truth in science is that whatever we’ve discovered, there always remains some mystery still to be solved. In other words, science is an endeavour of endless depth and mystery, so there appears to be no ultimate truth as some would like to find it.

The best book I’ve read on science is Roger Penrose’s The Emperor’s New Mind for a number of reasons, not least because it’s pitched at a level I can readily comprehend. Penrose provides the best exposition on entropy I’ve read, including its cosmological significance, as well as a philosophy of mathematics very similar to mine (see my post: Is mathematics invented or discovered?) But Penrose also provides an entire chapter on what constitutes a successful scientific theory. Penrose provides 3 categories for theories: TENTATIVE, USEFUL, and SUPERB (the capitalisation is his) which he then discusses in depth. I won’t repeat his discussion here, but it illustrates how theories evolve, with TENTATIVE and USEFUL being more contingent, and SUPERB being supremely successful over time. Interestingly, he includes Newton’s dynamics as a SUPERB theory even though it was overtaken by Einstein’s relativity theory. This is because many aspects of Newton’s theory, including the inverse square law for gravity, still apply under Einstein’s theory. Even if Einstein’s theory is overtaken, one would expect that many aspects, like the observed relativistic effects on time, would remain in any new theory. In effect, he is saying that a SUPERB theory, though it must satisfy the highest standards, does not explain everything. Outside of physics, Penrose argues that only Darwin’s and Wallace’s theory of natural selection comes closest to his idea of a SUPERB theory. Note that the theory of natural selection does not encompass evolutionary theory totally – there are other biological components to the theory that neither Darwin nor Wallace could have known about.

Science is a dynamic enterprise – we have never known the answers to all the mysteries that it uncovers, but what we do know is that future generations unlock secrets we can only speculate about. This is what has made science the most successful enterprise undertaken by humankind: a continous dialectic between existing knowledge and future discoveries. And this dialectic is epitomised in the case of Darwin’s acclaimed theory of evolution. When he proposed the theory he had no idea how traits were passed on from one generation to another, let alone how they could change or ‘mutate’. Everything we have discovered since has only confirmed the theory. We have discovered not only the mechanism of passing on traits (genes) but the message itself (DNA). DNA has allowed us to place every organism on earth in its correct evolutionary relationship to every other organism. DNA is the most compelling evidence yet that all life forms on earth have a common ancestor. (We share over 98% of our DNA with chimpanzees, and 63% with mice.) It’s not just simply that everything we have found ‘fits’ the theory, but if the theory was false, then the evidence would have told us that as well. In other words, the evidence is far from neutral. And, going back to the analogy with Galileo’s defence of Copernicus’s theory, it’s either true or it’s false: you can’t say evolution works some of the time or only works with some species and not others. It’s either true or false – it’s either a fact or it’s not – just like, in Galileo’s time, the earth went round the sun or it didn’t.

Richard Feynman notably won a Nobel Prize for his groundbreaking work on QED (quantum electrodynamics), and worked at Los Alamos on the Manhattan Project (the development of the atomic bomb in WWII). Most famously, he demonstrated on television how the Challenger shuttle failed: using a clamp, a pair of pliers and a pitcher of iced water he showed how the shuttle's O-rings lost elasticity under freezing conditions. He was not only one of the truly great physicists of his generation, but also one of the great teachers of science. In a book of his lectures on relativity theory, Six Not-So-Easy Pieces, he describes how the amino acid, L-alanine, is only found in life in a left-handed form, while it exists equally in right-handed and left-handed forms outside of life (the right-handed version is called D-alanine). Using a combination of irrefutable logic and brilliantly realised imagery, he explains how this could only come about if all existing life forms have a common origin. Paul Davies makes the same point, less eloquently perhaps, but no less persuasively, in his book, The Origin of Life.

This does not mean we understand everything we need to know about evolution. Quite the contrary: the biggest conundrum still to be resolved is how did the first DNA come about (refer Davies). Any ideas on this are very speculative – still very much in the TENTATIVE mode to use Penrose’s nomenclature. And this leads us to Intelligent Design (ID). When it comes to an exercise in complexity, DNA takes the cake, and according to the ID advocates, complexity stops evolution in its tracks. (For a brief discussion on complexity, including its role in DNA, see my later post: Is mathematics evidence of a transcendental realm?) Using the ID argument, DNA could have only been ‘designed’ by some ‘intelligent’ entity, a Creator or God, and evolution did the rest, or, evolution never happened. If we take the second argument first: evolution never happened; then genes, DNA and natural selection are irrelevant to nature, except for sexual reproduction. Speciation never occurred, which means everything was created all at once, or God came along every now and then, as was his whim, to create some new species. He manipulated the DNA so as to create new species whenever he wanted. Not only does this not ring true, it’s not accounted for in the Bible either (I'm leaving the biblical interpretation to last). Taking the first argument that God created DNA and let evolution do the rest, one is effectively saying that science can no longer answer any further questions on this: we have come to the end of science; only God can explain the origin of life.

Personally, I have no problem with admitting that we don’t know everything, but I would like to point out that history demonstrates continuously that only future generations can tell us how ignorant the current generation is. So I expect, that at some point in the future, the origin of DNA will be explained – in fact, I’m quite confident, even though I’ve no idea how.

The biblical interpretation, of course, does away with all of this nonsense: there is nothing to explain. And this brings me to Karl Popper, who instigated the proviso that a scientific theory needed to be able to generate falsifiable hypotheses. He did this to eliminate pseudo-scientific theories, which can explain everything no matter what we find, and his particular target at the time was Freud. In other words, a scientific theory needs to be put at risk. If you can’t prove it wrong then it’s purely speculative. Creationism is a pseudo-science in that it’s always right no matter what the evidence says. If we find something in nature then that’s the way God created it – all questions answered.

Now some people argue that evolution, on the basis of this criterion, is also a pseudo-science, because no one can observe it in progress. Well, natural selection is observed all the time, but no one can observe evolution en masse for even a fraction of the history of the planet. However, evolution can generate a number of hypotheses that can be proved false. The most obvious would be to find fossils of the same species in completely different geological time zones, or to find fossils out of sequence in the same line. With advances in DNA the most critical test is to find genetic relationships between species that contradict the fossil record. So the claim that evolution can’t be falsified is a nonsense.

The biblical interpretation is that all species were created everywhere in the world all at once. All the millions of species in the Amazon, all the weird and wonderful species that Darwin found on Galapagos, all the marsupials in Australia, all the dinosaurs, trilobites and millions of other species that have disappeared, but, strangely, only one race of humankind. All of these, of course, were also picked up in Noah’s ark and redistributed afterwards. At the same time, God created all the galaxies and all the light rays and all the quasars and all the neutrinos traveling through space – all within a 6 day period. The other interpretation is that all the scientific discoveries of the last century are completely fraudulent and none of these things exist, or not in the way we interpret them. Creationism not only does away with evolution but most of modern scientific knowledge, and certainly all of cosmology. I've argued with a number of creationists who claim they are not anti-science, only anti-evolution, but they seem unaware that their very claims of creationism make it impossible for them to be one without the other.

As recently witnessed in the 'Climate Change' debate, someone with a little knowledge can easily convince someone with no knowledge that they are right, even though a third person with a lot more knowledge can demonstrate that they are both wrong. I find it's the same with the Creationism/Evolution debate, even though it's really a debate about religion versus science, or, as I like to point out, myth versus science (see below). One of the favourite arguments of anti-evolutionists, is that evolution defies the second law of thermodynamics, also known as entropy. Both Roger Penrose (The Emperor's New Mind) and Paul Davies (The Origin of Life) provide excellent explanations of why this is a fallacy. But, without going into these arguments, I would like to give an everyday, millions of times repeatable, example of why the argument is false. Basically, the antagonists claim that entropy doesn't allow simple entities to develop into complex ones. A good example of entropy is breaking an egg and making an omelette (refer Penrose). It's impossible to take the omelette and get the egg back as it was before you started. In fact, Penrose points out that entropy is the only law in physics that really prohibits time from running backwards. Both quantum mechanics and relativity allow time reversal, mathematically speaking. Entropy says that everything goes from order to disorder, but there's a catch, which is energy. If you add nett energy you can go from disorder to order as we witness all the time. Now, the everyday example is every living organism on the planet, including each and every one of us. We all started out as simple cellular organisms (zygotes in the case of humans) and develop into extremely complex multi-cellular organisms without breaking the second law of thermodynamics. And it happens everyday, as it has done for millions of years, with swarms upon swarms of living entities all over the planet.

Ken Ham is an Australian, the same age as me as it turns out, who started and built the ‘Creation Museum’ in Kentucky. His entire premise is that humans are fallible but God is not, therefore the ‘Word of God’, the Bible, is the only criterion for validating a scientific theory. On his web site, I once submitted the following question: Since the time of Pythagoras (500 BC) to the present day, tell me one scientific discovery that arose from studying the scriptures? I never got a response, even though it was submitted over 2 years ago. The Bible tells us nothing about science: nothing about DNA, about the constant speed of light, about Euler’s famous equation or Einstein’s (E=mc2) or his theory of gravity; so why would it tell us anything about evolution or natural selection or genetics. The Bible was never written as a scientific text, even though people like Pythagoras, Euclid and Archimedes had already lived before the New Testament was written. So even the scientific knowledge of the day was not included.

Personally, I see the Bible as a book full of stories. A story, any story, can contain profound truths, but that doesn't mean the story itself is true, and that's how I see the Bible.

The Bible is full of mythical events: Jonah eaten by a whale, Moses parting the Red Sea, Lot's wife turned into a pillar of salt and Jesus walking on water; are amongst the best known, and there are myriad others. But the Genesis story is arguably the most mythical story of them all. In Genesis you have a man being made out of dirt, a woman made from a man’s rib, a serpent who speaks and a piece of fruit, that, when ingested, makes people genetically inherently evil. Not to mention that, afterwards, God punishes the snake by making it forever legless. It’s a story full of mythical elements, so what does it all mean? Myths can be interpreted a number of ways, but my interpretation of the Genesis myth is that it contains a fundamental truth: that no one can go through life without having to deal with evil at some level. Evil is a part of our human nature but that doesn’t mean I believe we are born evil. Evil arises from a set of conditions, usually social, that turns human against human. Any one of us can become evil, given the circumstances, but it’s not because of our biblical origins, it’s because of our evolutionary heritage (I discuss this in detail in my posting on Evil).

Many people interpret the Genesis story as ‘original sin’, which is a fundamental concept in Christianity. Because we all have original sin, only Jesus can save us from eternal damnation. This requires an extension of the myth to include Satan and a place called hell in the afterlife. I have a serious problem with the concept of ‘original sin’, not only because of all these mythical extensions, but because it’s a most pessimistic view of humanity, and I strongly disagree with the idea of teaching children that they are born evil. But as a means of psychological control over large sections of a population, it’s brilliant, and the Church exploited it for centuries.

Coming back to the discussion at hand, I don’t believe you can credibly replace a valid scientific theory with a myth. I’ve said elsewhere that science and religion can’t answer each other’s questions (I discuss this in my posting: Does the Universe have a Purpose?). Many people, on both sides of the argument, disagree with this. They claim that they absolutely overlap, but I counter that they only overlap if you insist on it. Science is the study of natural phenomena in all its manifestations. Religion, on the other hand, is an internal experience, and this creates a fundamental epistemological divide that people seem to overlook in this debate.

One of the fundamental criterion for the success of a scientific experiment is that it has to be replicable – it can’t be a one off. This means that anyone doing the same experiment under the same conditions should get the same result. Without this predictability science would be useless, both as an enterprise for discovery and as a fount for new technology. Having said that, it’s the unpredictable events, and the inexplicable ones, that lead to new theories, often dramatically, as expounded upon by Thomas Kuhn in his treatise on 'scientific revolutions'.

In the case of religion, however, any experience is unique to the person who has it. And this includes God, because God is an experience. The only manifestation of God that we know of is an internal one, albeit, it may feel like an external connection. And that experience is unique to that person. This means there are no religious truths, except at a very individual and intimate level. This creates a contradiction between personal religious experience and institutionalised religions that insist that everyone’s religious experiences must be the same, or of the same type (see my post on Religion). It’s when we attempt to rationalise these experiences, usually in the context of our cultural background, that we claim they are an ultimate truth. I contend that there is only one objective religious truth: we don’t know. Anything else is a dishonesty to the self, ‘mauvaise foi’, to quote Sartre.

People have a habit of confounding what they believe with what they know. When I studied philosophy, I was told that there are things that you know and things that you believe, and what you believe is contingent on what you know, but not the converse. (The Dalai Lama makes a similar point in his book on science and religion, The Universe in a Single Atom) When it comes to religion, I don’t expect anyone else to believe what I believe, because my experience is unique, and so is everyone else’s.

Footnote: The Dalai Lama was a good friend of, and heavily influenced by, the renowned physicist, David Bohm, who also worked on the Manhattan Project. David Bohm lived in exile in England following his refusal to testify in the McCarthy senate hearings. The Dalai Lama said it was something they had in common, ironically, by polar opposite political forces: one communist and one anti-communist. Late in his life, Bohm wrote a philosophical book called Wholeness and the Implicate Order. In it, he speculates (amongst other things) that quantum mechanics may be the manifestation of our universe being a 3 dimensional projection of a higher spacial dimensional world.

Addendum: I argue continuously that ignorance is the greatest enemy of the 21st Century. A view also shared by the Dalai Lama apparently, who said: 'ignorance is one of the 3 poisons of the mind.' Stephen J. Gould once made the point that this particular debate is very parochially American. The rest of the Western world appears to be less confused about the roles of religion and science, especially in education, and, for the most part, moved on from this debate generations ago. There is nothing wrong in admitting ignorance - in fact, it is to be commended - but passing on ignorance under the guise of education is inexcusable, and a serious backward step. At a very early stage in my education (adolescence), I realised that real knowledge comes from knowing how much one doesn't know.

Tuesday, 6 November 2007

Human Nature

This is an essay I wrote in April 2000, but I include it here because it follows on logically from my last posting. Also, it brings a lot of diverse ideas together, and provides complementary material to my posting on Existentialism: the unconscious philosophy, amongst others. The last paragraph iterates my 'epiphany' that I describe in The Universe's Interpreters. This was an attempt, at the time, to bring together as many of my philosophical views as I could under one thesis. There are some minor edits: a comment on Dawkins' 'memes', and a reference to Pan Nalin's film, Samsara. It originally had the heading: A Natural Law Philosophy based on Human Nature.

Philosophy is a dynamic and evolving process, and yet certain people and certain treatises have had an everlasting effect. Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Ethics, Confucius’ Annalects, Descartes’ Meditations, Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature, Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism and Sartre’s existentialism. This is not an exhaustive list but they all represent milestones in philosophical thought. Natural Law philosophy does not fall easily into a category of its own, and in fact it is not even mentioned in many good introductory texts on philosophy. But I introduce it because I believe it has a place, not only in the history of philosophy, but in the machinations of our society.

Natural Law arose in early Greek times as an attempt to replace conventional law with an ethics system based on natural laws. Conventional law was founded in tradition whereas natural law was purportedly based in nature. There are two inherent flaws in this premise. One is that someone’s interpretation of natural law is then prescribed as convention, so that one set of conventional laws are replaced by another; and secondly there are no natural laws for ethics in the same manner as there are natural laws for the physical universe. However there are some very basic laws of human nature that impact on society, and there are some ethical rules that are universal in their very expression. For example, Confucius’ basic creed of reciprocity: don’t do to someone else what you wouldn’t want done to yourself; known as the ‘Golden Rule’ in Western cultures, and also attributed to Jesus some 400 years after Confucius.

It is not my intention to provide an exposition on Natural Law philosophy, but to use it as a springboard to develop a more contemporary philosophical viewpoint. Everyone who has attempted a metaethics has failed: Aristotle, Confucius and Mill come to mind. Both Aristotle and Confucius created a prescriptive ethical system, and Mill was forced to make qualifications and compromises to plug perceived gaps in his edifice. These were gaps perceived by himself, not by his critics. In brief, there are no set of laws that lead inevitably to the right decision in all circumstances. So this is not my approach to natural law philosophy; I am not attempting a metaethics or a set of rules. I’m more interested in studying the nature of humans to develop a philosophical viewpoint that is relevant to our existence in society - specifically our existence in relation to others. In so doing I will address other issues like the belief in God, and our intellectual capacity to comprehend the Universe, but these issues should be considered as detours from the main path or side dishes to the main course.

It is our very human nature that leads me to attempt a form of natural law philosophy for my own time. This inevitably involves psychological considerations, but if I discuss psychological issues it will be in the broadest terms and the broadest context. The basic premise for my treatise is that there are three aspects to our nature which I consider fundamental to our wellbeing, and which are also key to the structure of Western society, if not all societies. They are our essential need for social cohesion, the natural emergence of leaders in any group endeavour, and the individual’s desire to achieve their potential. It is possibly only in the last century that the last social requirement in my list has been recognised as a universal need. It has certainly been a major factor in shaping societies in Western cultures in the last half of the 20th Century. It is also, of course, a core feature in existentialist philosophy since Sartre.

But I need to start at the beginning: our desire for social cohesion is probably the most fundamental of all human needs psychologically, as both our survival and our sanity are dependent on it. Yes Robinson Crusoe could live on a deserted island for a limited period, but social isolation usually has devastating effects. In some indigenous cultures, ostracism from the tribe meant death. But it is even more fundamental than that - the learning of language, key to all things human, can only happen in a structured, complex, social environment. With social cohesion comes a need for social harmony, the resolution of conflicts, and inevitably, a set of ethics for any specific social group. In a society dependent on material goods and economic stability, the need, dependence and value of social cohesion is often underestimated. However if one places social values in their proper perspective, they have a profound effect on ethics. I will illustrate this point by examining one of Plato’s dialogues.

This particular dialogue considers the just and the unjust man. Plato addresses a generally held view, for his time and possibly for ours, that when purely material values are taken into account, the unethical person is the winner and the ethical person is invariably the loser. This is based on the assumption that the ‘winner’ is in a position of power and wealth and can therefore make his or her own rules. In this situation, it is perceived that the ethical person has no chance for success. So the conclusion is that being ethical has no reward or less reward than being unethical. Plato’s response was that the ethical person uses his or her intellect or rational nature to overcome his or her greed and base desires. While this addresses the virtue of ethical behaviour, it does not address the question of reward. In Plato’s philosophy, and indeed most subsequent philosophies, the social aspect of the individual is virtually ignored.

In almost unique contrast to this, Aristotle’s treatise, entitled Ethics, contains a remarkable essay on the moral value of friendship. I won’t elaborate on this in any detail, except to say that Aristotle valued friendship as a considerable virtue in its own right. So if one considers that rewards include such intangible qualities as friendship, loyalty and trustworthiness, then it can be argued that social attributes are just as significant to ethical behaviour as material benefits. While this alone is a significant argument in support of ethical behaviour, there is also a more subtle negative aspect to unethical behaviour which is rarely considered.

The unethical person must necessarily create a distorted perception of his or her world. The unjust man or woman suffers from a dishonesty to the self not unlike Sartre’s notion of ‘mauvaise foi’ or bad faith. The unjust person believes that his or her rewards are justifiably earned and the fate of those less fortunate are self-inflicted. Even Hitler believed that what he was doing was for the betterment of our world. The unjust person often believes, contrary to the perceptions of others, that his or her view of the world is completely just. This psychological component of unethical behaviour is often observed but rarely perceived as a qualitative negative component in the equation of rewards and risks. It is only a negative reward within a social context, and its consequences can be massive and severe for those who abuse their power.

At a more basic level there is a negative aspect to our desire for social cohesion itself, and this has impacted throughout human history. It is the perception of the outsider and it probably has its roots in our evolutionary development, because it is a perception of considerable force and tenacity. Predators in the animal kingdom are usually territorial, even those who exhibit tribal behaviour like wolves and lions. All these animals will shun an intruder of the same species, but never more so than when resources are scarce. Not surprisingly, humans exhibit the same behaviour and the consequences are often horrific. Also humans have so many factors by which they can discriminate an outsider: physical features, language, religion, dress, and culture are the most obvious. Humans are quick to form groups that alienate others and create conflict with alternate groups, even when they are suppose to co-operate. Anyone who has worked in a contractual situation has experienced this, even on a modest scale. This is a significant component of what I perceive as the natural law of our human nature. (For a more detailed discourse on this topic see my posting on Evil.) The other component missing from this discussion is hate, but I will talk about that later.

The natural emergence of leaders in any group endeavour is a social phenomenon that can easily be misconstrued. A leader can be seen as the one who achieves the greatest self promotion rather than the one who is best suited for the job, but there are other factors at work. The natural emergence of a leader is something that involves everyone, but most significantly those amongst us who seek to be led. In any group endeavour we automatically turn to the person whom we believe has the most experience or the most expertise in that endeavour. So a leader in one field is not necessarily a leader in another. James Barrie wrote a play on this theme, when he located a group of people on a deserted island and the butler emerged as the most resourceful and consequently became the leader for the group whilst they were shipwrecked. Barrie’s play, Admiral Crichton, was a satire on English class society, and was very controversial in its day, not least because it contained a great deal of truth. In reality, if a leader fails, people will quickly look elsewhere. This of course, is the basis of democratic government. In dictatorships people feel disassociated from their government and their passive acceptance either hides a frustration or a sense of lack of control over their own lives. There is a danger in these societies that people become dependent on others’ decision making, so that a move to a Western style democracy is both unfamiliar and unworkable in the short term. But this basic aspect of our nature has ramifications at almost every level of society. It shows that leadership only works when the people being led are actively involved in the process.

Confucius was one of the earliest philosophers of ethics to advocate that positions of authority should be given on merit and not on the basis of privilege. He understood that authority given to someone with inadequate expertise or experience had disastrous consequences for all those under his leadership, so the greater the responsibility the more critical the appointment. But even Confucius suffered from the prejudices of his day, including the status of women in society, and he was consistent with his milieu in his belief that women could not acquire leadership qualities outside the family home. This of course was considered a natural law by most, if not all societies up to the 20th Century. It is an indication of how subjective and transient so-called natural laws can be. But Confucius gave a lot of sage advice on leadership, including the aphorism that to rule is to truly serve, and that the most successful leaders were loved, not feared. Confucius understood that the value of loyalty lay in its reciprocity.

Our individual desire to achieve our potential, as I described earlier, has probably become the most salient feature in recent Western societies. Certain psychologists like Abraham Maslow, Rollo May and Carl Rogers created an alternative school of psychology based on this fundamental premise. But to appreciate this trait in a philosophical context, it is best to start with Sartre and his oxymoronic statement: ‘man is condemned to be free’. An entire essay could be written on this subject, but for the purposes of this discussion I will attempt to distil out the most salient points. It must be said, to avoid misrepresentation, that Sartre’s philosophy contains a number of ideas that one would consider pessimistic or even perverse. Specifically, he argued that our relationship with the ‘other’ was always as object: either we were perceived as an object to be possessed by the other or we perceive them as an object for possession. Whilst Sartre was probably making a psychological observation, I think it is a most perverse way to view human relationships. But such pathologies aside, Sartre provided enormous insight into the philosophy of the self. By this, I mean the way we create a self and our propensity for self-deception.

The basic premise of Sartre’s existential philosophy was that ‘man creates his own essence.’ In this we assume that Sartre is making reference to Descartes’ assertion that his ‘essence’ is his thinking self, as opposed to his corporeal self. Descartes of course believed that his essence was his soul, and this has resulted in the philosophical concept of dualism, which is another essay in itself. To quote Sartre: ‘Man is nothing else but what he purposes, he exists only in so far as he realises himself, he is therefore nothing else but the sum of his actions, nothing else but what his life is.’ In other words, any individual is purely responsible for their own actions, their own morality and their own life. According to Sartre, we have no recourse to fate or God or circumstances. This is what Sartre is referring to when he says that ‘man is condemned to be free’. Each individual must take responsibility for their own morality and their own destiny. The other key feature of Sartre’s philosophy was his concept of ‘mauvaise foi’ or bad faith, which I mentioned earlier. This is a difficult concept to explain but basically Sartre is critical of people living inauthentic lives. Psychologists like Carl Rogers realised that a lot of neurotic behaviour and depression resulted from people not taking control of their own lives or from living inauthentic lives. By this he means people often live the life that has been thrust upon them by the expectations of their parents, their spouses or their society. I believe this is a common source of ills in our society and a serious impediment to people achieving their potential.

But it is a concept that has even deeper significance. I would argue that self-deception is the greatest impediment we have to growth of character and in realising self-fulfilment. In fact Freud’s psychoanalytic theory is rooted in the idea that much of our behaviour is caused by processes of which we are not conscious. Whilst I believe much of Freud’s theory is flawed, he unearthed a basic aspect of human nature - our ability for self-deception and its role in undermining our psychological health. Modern psychoanalysis is geared more towards exploring the self, and uncovering layers of self-deception, rather than treating psychotic and neurotic patients as it was in Freud’s time.

As I alluded to much earlier, philosophy has generally failed to take into account the social aspect of our existence. In hindsight this seems extraordinarily remiss, but perhaps it has more to do with our reductionist approach to the study of nature rather than a lack of appreciation of the psychology of relationships. The exception, some people would say, is Carl Marx, but Marx’s philosophy focused on the subordination of the self to the whole or the group, although this is only one component of a much more complex philosophy based on his premise of ‘class struggle’ . For all his good intentions of taking wealth from the privileged and giving it to the exploited, I find Marx’s notion of self-sublimation so contradictory to the existentialist philosophy of Sartre, that it borders on the pathological. Having said that, a number of existentialists flirted with Marxist communism, Sartre amongst them. Communism has long been seen as an intellectual ideal, but I simply believe Marx’s philosophy is flawed on two fronts, which is why it has never succeeded in practice. Not only is Marx’s philosophy flawed socially because the self is subsumed by the collective, but his revolutionary model is flawed. It is the State that has to control capitalist enterprises following the 'class' revolution and not the people as he theorises. So contrary to Marx’s intentions, the people have no more control over their lives than previously.

In my introduction, I made it my stated goal to develop a philosophical viewpoint that is relevant to our existence in society - specifically our existence in relation to others. Therefore I now turn to the specific issue of the significance of our relationship to others in regard to the self. In his introduction to Meditations, Descartes makes reference to a mad person as someone who might misconstrue who they are and their relationship to their surroundings, much as we do when we are dreaming, only they are awake. Another person may well ask how do you know who is mad and who is sane? Perhaps it is you who misconstrues their situation and it is the madman who is sane. But I have an answer to that. Basically we use other people as mirrors and when people appear to perceive us as we do ourselves then we consider both them and ourselves sane. The mad person on the other hand, lives in a world that is his or hers alone. No one that they interact with has the same vision of the world as theirs. I think this is the best way of illustrating how the self is at least partly dependent on others for its self-perception. In recent years there has developed the concept of narrative philosophy which has attempted to address this very issue. I think narrative philosophy falls short of its aim, and I will explain why, but also I think there are better means of achieving the same end.

Basically narrative philosophy takes into account that part of the self is contributed to by others. It takes the analogy of narrative because we all exist as a story in someone else’s life. In this respect we continue to exist after our death and in some cases we exist before our birth if the birth is planned. Whilst it attempts to address a problem or a perceived gap in philosophical thought, I think it merely creates an illusion of existence. It is true that others contribute to the self in a number of interesting ways, but being part of someone else’s story really doesn’t mean a lot to me, whether I’m alive or dead. My main opposition to narrative philosophy however, is that as a metaphor, it misses the target entirely. If one has ever written a story, one is conscious of the inner and outer journey, otherwise known as the interaction between plot and character. Of course this inner and outer journey is equally true of life itself, it’s just that in writing fiction, playing God so to speak, one becomes acutely aware of it. Sartre actually makes reference to it as the internal and external world in an interview with his long time companion, Simone de Beauvoir. He never elaborated on it, but I found it a complete departure from his espoused view of the other as object and therefore possession or possessor. In fact he puts it rather poetically: ‘It’s this binding together of without and within that constitutes man.’ To summarise, the inner and outer journey is the interaction between fate and free will: it is the nexus that constitutes the self; it is in fact the core element of an individual’s life.

I find it illuminating to compare the stoics’ view on free will and determinism with the Chinese Taoists. The stoics were in effect natural law philosophers and they had a few things in common with the Taoists. They both believed in attempting to live according to natural laws, in man’s special relationship to both God and nature, and the resolution of free will and determinism. But where the stoics saw determinism and free will as contradictory, the Taoists saw them as complementary. The Taoists deal with this much better in my view, because they assert that man must stand up to his fate, which implies that fate, or life in general, is a form of test against which man must avail. This leads to the view that adversity plays a role in creating character and providing growth. To quote the Chinese classic, the I Ching: ‘Times of adversity are the reverse of times of success, but they can lead to success if they befall the right man.’ It is no surprise that the overcoming of adversity is a universal theme, popular in all forms of storytelling, including biographies as well as fiction.

From my viewpoint, one can’t leave the discussion of relationships with others without including the Eastern concept of karma. Karma is a concept used in Hindu and Buddhist religions to explain or to give a causal essence to good and evil. In the West we have personalised good and evil into the characters of Christ and Satan so that it is seen as having transcendental origins. In the East, karma is associated with the transmigration of souls from one life to another through reincarnation. So karma in this life will affect our next life and karma in past lives affects this life. Now I’m not going to enter into a debate on reincarnation because that’s not the point of my discussion. On the other hand, if one considers karma simply as a concept of transference, then karma permeates the world and affects our lives irrespective of any transcendental connection. We know from watching the world news that acts of violence beget more acts of violence. Vindictiveness, jealousy and revenge all exact their toll, but positive acts are equally effective. Look at the effects of Princess Diana’s attempts at charity on the entire world consciousness and the Dalai Lama’s pacifist presence. But on a much more modest level, acts of kindness and charity produce positive effects beyond their immediate purpose. So I argue that karma works in the real world and we witness it every day. In fact, every encounter is an opportunity to create positive or negative karma, if one looks at it in this way. (Pan Nalin makes a similar point, almost as a footnote, in his award winning film on Buddhism, Samsara, when a Sage shows the protagonist a 'lesson': 'Every encounter is an opportunity to practice the Way'.)

My argument is that evil is uniquely a human condition and has nothing to do with God or the Devil; in fact it could be argued that it is purely a psychological condition. Evil does not exist in nature. A spider is not evil for eating a fly or for even eating its own mate. It does this because that is its nature. Both Aristotle and Seneca, a Roman stoic, argued that ‘man’s reason is the intended end of man’s nature.’ In other words it is in man’s nature to use his reason which is why we have morals. Humans, unlike animals, can use reason to decide whether to kill something or not, and from this we decide whether it is right or wrong. (Again, for a more elaborate argument, refer my posting on Evil). Of course, this makes morals very much a subjective matter, but morals are a social issue because they affect everyone, so we legislate laws and create a justice system. This leads logically to a discussion on utilitarianism, but firstly I would like to discuss the nature of hate which I raised much earlier.

Almost anyone can identify with the emotion of hate yet we all deplore its consequences. Hate is most often associated with revenge, but the problem with hate is that it doesn’t resolve one’s inner pain. The film, Dead Man Walking, illustrated this point very well. Whatever empathy we felt for the victims, we knew that their hate would never leave them in peace. Generally, hate does as much damage psychologically to the person hating as it does to the hated. The Christian religion promotes forgiveness and in fact the entire philosophy of Christianity is based on forgiveness when one considers that its central pillar of faith is Christ dying in order to forgive us all our sins. But forgiveness is only possible when one’s inner pain is resolved. Forgiveness is a letting go of something inside oneself, as much as reaching out to someone who performed some iniquity. It's just that leaving one’s self in peace requires leaving the other in peace as well.

Mill’s philosophy of Utilitarianism is often expressed as the ‘greatest happiness principle’, which is based on the simple premise of the greatest amount of happiness to the greatest number of people. Mill’s philosophy was developed in part as a challenge to natural law philosophy, because in his time natural law philosophy was espoused as the law of God by the Church, which Mill saw as an excuse for dogmatism. But Mill’s philosophy is more significant than that, because utilitarianism is probably what we practice in Western societies today, only we call it democracy. There is a lot of cynicism expressed about democracy in modern societies, even though by and large, it is a very robust system that weeds out oligarchies and provides political stability. The truth is that people will always complain and find fault with a system, even though, or especially when, they have never experienced anything worse. But this is not necessarily a bad thing, because nothing guarantees decline and failure with more certainty than complacency.

Mill, by his own admission, wanted to develop a social science which he called psychology, but he was born in the wrong century. The most frustrating aspect of reading Mill, is that a lot of his ideas, or at least the theories behind his ideas, have been overtaken by 20th Century social psychology. The term, social norm, had not been invented in Mill’s time, but he certainly understood the concept. In particular Mill understood that conscience is largely a product of social norms and not some inner voice provided by God. Mill realised that the means of changing and governing attitudes was through a process of creating social norms. This is a form of manipulation that is pervasive in modern society for good or for ill. Attitudes towards smoking, drink driving and feminism, are all recent examples of social norm interventions. Social norms almost totally determine who we are without our conscious awareness. They determine our behaviour and relationships in almost every situation from the family home to the office, to the board room, to the local restaurant to the beach. Social norms arise from our innate desire to conform and occur at the most basic levels of human existence. Social norms are almost unavoidable and have a strong relationship with another psychological concept called the schema.

As an aside, Richard Dawkins calls social norms ‘memes’, as an analogy to genes, because they are passed on from generation to generation and they ‘mutate’. Some people refer to memes as if they are just as ‘real’ as genes, yet I contend that the term is purely metaphorical in that context. There are no corresponding genotypes and phenotypes (genes and traits) with memes as there are with genes; in other words, no corresponding cause and effect elements.

Schemas are mental models that we have for situations, both specific and generic. Where a schema involves social protocols, like how to behave at a restaurant, for example, they are called scripts. In fact, in psychology, the term script is defined as a schema for an event. We use schemas to evaluate other people and we even have a schema for our self. Schemas are directly related to our expectations of other people, ourselves and the many roles that we play. Referring back to the mad person of Descartes, we judge whether someone is sane or not by comparing their behaviour with a schema, and specifically we often use our own self-schema as a reference. Schemas are important because they directly relate to Sartre’s concept of authenticity. Is our self-schema accurate or is it distorted? In any relationship, be it work or family or a team effort, our psychological health is dependent on our self-schema. Specifically, the closer our self-schema, and therefore our expectations of ourselves, is to the others’ perceptions in the group, the more psychologically healthy our relationship is.

Sartre’s philosophy of authenticity reminds me of the Taoist dictum to be true to one’s self, or true to one’s nature. But for Sartre this is a non sequitur because according to him we have no innate nature to be true to. However this is not an issue because the dictum clearly relates to being true to one’s principles. But what if one’s principles involves harm to others. Sartre himself addressed this very dilemma in an essay he wrote on the anti-semite. The anti-semite does have principles but they are not necessarily concordant with the wellbeing of others. Sartre attempted to resolve this dilemma with a call for moral universality: ‘... when we say that man is responsible for himself,... he is responsible for all men.’ But I find this both unsatisfactory and unconvincing.

The most fundamental element I find missing from all philosophies on ethics is empathy. If one considers Confucius’s creed of reciprocity, also acknowledged by Christ, then empathy is the key to putting such a creed into practice. It also provides the perfect response to the anti-semite’s principles. In the field of social psychology, it is generally recognised that empathy occurs in pre-language infants, and is even displayed by some animals. Empathy is often equated with compassion, but I would argue that empathy should be the starting point of any moral philosophy, because one: it stems from a purely emotive response; and two: it’s negation is necessary for all of the world’s inhumane atrocities. In other words, empathy doesn’t require any rational analysis to invoke, and in fact, needs to be ignored, overridden or rationalised to become ineffectual. Whilst I would agree with Mill that moral feelings, or moral attitudes and behaviour, are not innate but cultivated through social norms, empathy remains a wellspring for individual moral action, irrespective of social norms. To quote a journalist in The Age, Martin Flanagan, who in turn quoted a friend involved with Martin Bryant’s prison life: ‘...what makes us human is our ability to empathise. ...Bryant displays no empathy.’ (Martin Bryant was responsible for the Port Arthur massacre 28 April 1996). Empathy is the closest one can get to a first principle or natural law for moral behaviour.

So that is it. I’ve pretty well exhausted all my philosophical ideas concerning natural law, human nature and ethics. But I mentioned in my introduction our tendency to believe in a transcendental realm and in particular a propensity to believe in God. I’m not going to argue one way or the other for the existence of God, but I wish to make an observation that seems to escape most discussions on the subject. There are two aspects of God, which we tend to assume are synonymous, but which I would argue are not necessarily the same. Firstly, there is the concept of God as Creator of the Universe and everything in it - God as primal cause or first cause. Secondly, there is the psychological experience of God, which is the only experience of God that we have first hand. In other words, God occurs as a manifestation in the human mind. In some respects this relates back to my idea of the inner and outer world and their conjunction in the self. Certainly the Buddhists understand this better than we do in the West, yet Augustine also talked about God as an inner journey rather than something external. He said: ‘ reach the good, which is the real, one must “return into” oneself; for it is the spirit at the heart of man’s inmost self that links him to the ultimate reality.’ Also: ‘Grace awakens the dormant power of the mind to see God’s image in itself, to see itself, that is, as God’s image.’ Karen Armstrong, in her book, The History of God, made constant reference to the apparent conflict between an intellectual concept of God and the mystical experience described by the many sages and mystics throughout history.

The prime cause, on the other hand, need be nothing more than a set of physical laws to put the whole dynamic of the universe into action. This is not an original idea and was espoused by Voltaire amongst others. God may well be a product of consciousness rather than the other way round. This is consistent with a belief in God as a process rather than as a static entity; an idea that coincides with Jung’s hypothesis of a collective unconscious. The truth is we don’t know, but I merely point out that there are many ways of perceiving a transcendental realm and its consequences.

Finally, I wish to expound on a perfectly natural phenomenon that places our unique position in the Universe in a most intriguing perspective. The human mind is unique because we have the faculty of language, and it is through language that we are able to express ideas, invent, synthesise and manipulate concepts. Without this unique trait we would be nothing special at all. But it is more than that. The human mind, through language, has a very special ability. We are able to create concepts within concepts ad infinitum. We do this in all our endeavours: music, mathematics, storytelling, design. It is best illustrated in writing. A single word is the most fundamental element that has meaning, but we place the word into a sentence and the sentence has a meaning of its own. The sentence then exists within a larger passage that again takes on a meaning beyond that of the single sentence, and so it goes on. But nature works exactly the same way. No matter at what scale we examine it, nature consists of worlds within worlds that extend both inwards and outwards, and takes on a completely different form and function depending on what level we look at it. The human body consists of individual cells which are self consistent but are another world altogether to the human world in which we live - this is just one very obvious example. The point I wish to make is that the reason we can comprehend the universe is that we are the only species (that we know of) which has a mind that works in exactly the same way that nature works. This, in my view, gives us a unique responsibility. We have the intellect and the power to understand, to cultivate and to destroy the world in which we live. Even if God, or a transcendental realm, exists, then clearly that responsibility has been empowered to us. Should we not then execute all our earthly endeavours with humility and caution?

Sunday, 21 October 2007

Existentialism: the unconscious philosophy

My contention is that existentialism is the unconscious philosophy of secular Western society, and the following dissertation is my attempt to support that contention. If you tell people that you’re an existentialist they make a number of assumptions. The first assumption is that you are a follower of Jean Paul Sartre, and the second assumption is that you’re an atheist. (Personally, I was more influenced by Camus). But existential ‘themes’ can be found in the strangest of places: the stoic philosophy of ancient Greece and Rome; Confucian commentary in the I Ching; and the ruminations of humanist psychologists like Carl Rogers. Many philosophers have also commented on similarities between some aspects of Buddhism and existentialism.

So what do I mean by existentialism? Perhaps we should start with Sartre. Essentially, existentialism argues that you are personally responsible for who you are: morally, socially, politically and religiously; you create your own identity. Sartre put it differently, but the message is the same: you ‘create your own essence’ and you make your life a ‘project’. By essence, he was almost certainly referring to Descartes, who talked about ‘essence’ as something intrinsic; what some would call the soul. (I provide a different, one might say, existentialist, concept of ‘soul’ in my first posting on Self.)

Sartre himself acknowledges that ‘Existentialism is a Humanism’, the title of one of his most famous essays, and, by so doing, identifies himself with the earlier humanists in Western Philosophy. These were heretics of their time, who dared to posit that ‘man’ is responsible for his own destiny: materialistically, morally and spiritually. Sartre famously stated in that essay that ‘man is condemned to be free’, meaning, in essence, that we have to take responsibility for whom we become.

It’s only in the 20th Century, and only in Western society, that we have come to accept that almost anyone can achieve their dreams and ambitions. Previously, and in many other cultures (though not all), one’s ambitions and aspirations were limited by birth and demography, not to mention sex. To some extent this is still true, and certainly true in a global sense, but at least people are aware of inequality and the long term harm it causes. An existential philosophy acknowledges that everyone should ‘ideally’ be able to create their own persona. But Sartre’s specific contribution was to emphasise that individuals are responsible for their own moral actions, and have no recourse to religion, cultural or metaphysical origins. This was a direct response to what happened in WWII, and I discuss this specifically elsewhere in my posting on Evil (Oct.07). But returning to the topic at hand, Sartre argued, significantly, that one can’t offload one’s responsibility, or society’s collective responsibility, to a religious entity such as God or the Devil.

I think this had direct consequences for the post war generation. There was a worldwide cultural revolution in 1960s Western society, that effectively questioned the role of the Church, the role of God and the relationship between the individual and the State. To many people, conservatives in particular, this created a rupture in society that we are still paying for. To quote Cardinal George Pell (Archbishop of Sydney), quoted in turn by journalist, Christopher Pearson (as recently as January this year) ‘Times have changed and many are troubled by the consequences of the revolutions of the 1960s.’ Reading between the lines, I conclude that Pell resents the rise of feminism, the introduction of the contraceptive pill, the loss of the virtue called virginity, and the recognition that homosexuals and lesbians deserve the right of respect in all avenues of society. Personally, I see all these as positives. Not surprisingly, all of these are sexually related, and the Church, historically, had thought it fit to govern all our sexual activities through the application of guilt, fear and the wrath of God.

Existentialism changed all that, in that we became unconscious existentialists: we came to the realisation that, through education, we could make our own moral decisions and become the person we were meant to be rather than the one dictated by the mores of a religious dominated society.

Pell and his supporters, would point out the negative consequences of this revolution: the rise in drug abuse, the breakdown of marriages, the pursuit of material gain over spiritual solace. And I would agree that these are not issues to be ignored, but the positive consequences are that we live our lives more honestly, and are encouraged not to live a lie, which was the most damaging aspect of the pre-existentialist revolution. People living in marriages that destroyed their souls, transsexuals unable to live with the identity they were born with, young women forced to carry through pregnancies that could have been avoided. These led to neuroses on a large scale. I'm not saying that all neuroses inherent in our society have been eliminated, but I see no advantage in turning back the clock with the inevitable consequence of creating neuroses for the future.

Does this make me irreligious or an atheist? No, it doesn’t, but that’s another discussion for another time. Most people don’t know what existentialism is, yet most people, living a secular life in a Western society, follow an existential philosophy whether they are theists or atheists. I call it the unconscious philosophy because most people believe they create their own destiny, their own identity and their own morality, and, in principle, that indicates a psychologically healthy state of mind.

The corollary to this is that self-deception is our greatest weakness, which, in extremis, can lead to avoiding responsibility for who one really is. As Hugh Mackay points out in his excellent book on moral philosophy, Right & Wrong (subtitled, how to decide for yourself), 'The most damaging lies are those we tell ourselves'. In fact, he devotes an entire section to this topic, with that quote as his heading.

Postscript: the consequences of self-deception are elaborated upon in a later post, Human Nature (Nov.07), and again in a post on Trust (April 08).

You may also want to read my views on God, theism, atheism (Aug.07)

Sunday, 14 October 2007

Does the Universe have a Purpose?

Like, almost all of my postings so far, this was triggered by something I read. American Scientist (Sep-Oct 07) published some excerpts from a series of essays written by 12 ‘leading scientists and scholars’ for the John Templeton Foundation. The essays can all be read at and they are not lengthy.

Altogether, they highlighted something I’ve said before: science and religion can’t answer each other’s questions (refer my posting on Intelligent Design). Even amongst the scientists, as well as the theologians, it is obvious that the point of view expressed by each of them is totally subjective, and they use the science they know to support that point of view.

It would appear that they were all asked to answer the question with a one word answer, followed by a short treatise, though a few used more than one word: Very Likely, I Hope So and Not Sure. But the one word answers varied widely from Yes, Certainly, Indeed to Unlikely and No. Paul Davies, whom I’ve read widely, said: Perhaps. Being familiar with his philosophical dissertations, I thought he would have said something stronger, but, when examining my own response, I can understand his apparent reticence. If I was asked to answer in one word I would most likely say: Possibly. 'Probably' was also a brief contender, but not an honest one. ‘Possibly’ expresses both my subjective uncertainty and the objective reality. Perhaps that is why Paul Davies said ‘Perhaps’.

A couple of the scholars spoke as if the only theological perspective could be a Judea-Christian one, whereas I feel that there are many theological perspectives. Karen Armstrong’s response would have been worth soliciting, but I think she would have seen these particular responses as pertaining to their specific myths, which encapsulate their cultural perspectives. And the same applies to me (see below). I thought all the essays had merit, including the ones that verged on the dismissive.

Personally, I thought the negative responses were just as edifying as the positive ones, because they revealed that ‘science’ is effectively noncommittal. The positive responses were obviously based on a personal philosophy, which only underlines ‘science’s’ neutrality in my view. Yes, many talked about the ‘fine-tuned’ nature of the universe for intelligent life, especially the role of the carbon atom, but at least one also pointed out that in terms of universal time and space, our existence is miniscule to the point of insignificance. None of them mentioned, by the way, the peculiar property of hydrogen bonding in water that stops oceans from being mostly frozen. So science supports both the sceptic and the optimist. I use the term, optimist, because I think that believing in a purpose is a symptom of optimism, though sceptics would call it a symptom of delusion.

I found the most interesting response was from Christian De Duve, a biochemist and 1974 Nobel Prize winner. His one word response was No, yet his argument was far from dismissive. I won’t expound on his essay, but I liked his conclusion. After extolling the virtues of human creativity in arts, music, literature, philosophy and all that it encompasses, he said: ‘Why not have the universe itself uncreated, an actual manifestation of Ultimate Reality, rather than the work of an uncreated creator?’ This also leads to the possibility, not proposed by any of the essayists, that God is the end result of this process we call a universe, rather than its progenitor.

What about my response? Well I think one can only answer it honestly by asking another question: do you believe you have a purpose? And the best answer I’ve come across lies in the I Ching: ‘If in truth you have a kind heart, ask not. If kindness be considered your virtue, you have attained your purpose completely.’ What I like about this aphorism is that it encapsulates a complete philosophy of spiritual meaning, with no reference to a God or Heaven; though it doesn’t rule them out, just makes them a contextual non sequitur.

We only consider the universe having a purpose in the context that we have a purpose, and science assigns us no special purpose, despite everything that nature has achieved in making our existence possible. Jane Goodall makes the point, rather eloquently, that a Universe without meaning seems pointless: ‘…it is impossible to imagine "nothingness"’. When I was a young child I tried to imagine a world without consciousness and it was like trying to imagine the unimaginable. It still is. But this doesn’t answer the question; it just puts into perspective the reality that the universe only exists for me while I’m in it. So ‘purpose’, for most people, implies a life beyond death, and that is the rub. We don’t know, and we are not meant to know. As far as I am concerned, the best I can say is that my life does have a purpose, but only in relation to others I meet and form relationships with, and beyond that, I don’t know, and, arguably, I don’t need to know.

In December 1988, LIFE published a series of responses (49 in total) to the question: ‘What is The Meaning of Life?’ My favourite was by Confucian scholar, Tu Wei-Ming: ‘…the globe is the centre of our universe and the only home for us, and we are the guardians of the good earth, the trustees of the mandate of heaven.. We are here because embedded in our human nature is the secret code for heaven’s self-realisation… It needs our active participation to realise its own truth. We are heaven’s partners, indeed co-creators… Since we help heaven to realise itself through our self-discovery and self-understanding in day-to-day living, the ultimate meaning of life is found in our ordinary, human existence.’

What I liked about this response is that it implies that we are not passive participants, yet we play a part just by living our lives. My position is: if there is a (transcendental) purpose then we best fulfil it, not by knowing it, but simply living it.

See also my posting on The Meaning of Life.
There are similar themes touched on in a letter I wrote to Phillip Adams in 2005 (see God, theism, atheism).

On a related topic, I would recommend the book, GOD The Interview, by ABC broadcaster, Terry Lane. Whilst some may see it as satire, I see it as a commendable philosophical treatise.

Wednesday, 3 October 2007


It seems that a lot of my blogs are the result of a response to someone else’s opinion or something they’ve written. This posting is no exception: in 2003 I read a book by Lance Morrow called Evil, An Investigation. Lance Morrow was an essayist for TIME magazine in the 1980s and 90s, and may still be for all I know, as I no longer subscribe. But this is how philosophy works: someone expresses a point of view supported by arguments and someone else challenges it, and that includes my arguments as well.

His book was a collection of essays, almost anecdotes, from which he derived a philosophical point of view on the subject of evil. I had serious problems with both his premise and his conclusions, so I wrote a lengthy letter to him explaining my disagreement and my position. Not surprisingly, he didn’t reply. My fundamental disagreement was with his apparent premise that evil is the result of a personality disorder, whereas history demonstrates that the worst of evil happens on a large scale involving a large number of people, most of whom would be considered normal under other circumstances. In effect, evil is almost a cultural disease that seems capable of affecting anyone given the fertile circumstances that allow it to develop unchecked.

His book and my response were written well before the incidents at Abu Ghraib, which perfectly demonstrate how evil can arise irrespective of cultural background. Morrow, being American, also seemed to fall into the cultural trap of believing that morality needed theism to ground it. To quote from my own correspondence: “There is an impression one gets from America that atheism is considered synonymous with amorality. Your own rhetoric supports this impression, when you claim that ‘atheism suffers a gag reflex’ on the word evil, and you dismiss philosophy as ‘theology in mufti’. History reveals that there is very little correlation between religion and morality and some may even argue that the converse is true.” Morrow seemed to think that anyone who is not Christian, or without Biblical influence, must believe in moral relativism, where anything goes. He never actually said this, and, in fact, he was careful not to reveal his own religious beliefs, but many Americans purport this point of view (atheism equates to moral relativism), and his own attack on atheism would suggest that he believes something similar.

My thesis is almost the opposite to his, where I believe that anyone, including myself, could perform acts of evil given the right circumstances. I provided 2 sources of evidence: incidents of atrocities performed throughout the 20th century by a diverse array of cultures; and psychological experiments demonstrating the ease with which people can become the perpetrators of culpable acts. Anyone who has studied psychology is familiar with Milgram’s famous study in obedience conducted at Yale University in the 1960’s, in which participants were asked to deliver electric shocks to an unseen person in another room when they gave wrong answers to simple questions. Amazingly, 65% of participants continued to give shocks at the extreme end of the scale (over 400 Volts) to people who had stopped responding. What is not so well known, is that this experiment was performed in many countries, revealing cultural differences in how ‘disciplined’ people were in obeying authority figures. America was not the highest scorer in this regard, with Spain and Holland scoring over 90% and Italy, Germany and Austria scoring over 80%. Australia, which has a long history of disobeying or questioning authority, was the lowest with 40% for men and 16% for women (Introduction to Social Psychology by Vaughan and Hogg, 1998, Prentice Hall). I don’t believe Australians are more compassionate than the other cultures tested, but I think, at the time these experiments were done, Australians had a lesser regard for authority figures than their contemporaries in other Western countries. This experiment or test is not so much about personal morality but about unquestioning trust in authority figures, which is the real reason that the figures varied.

The other famous, or infamous, experiment was the Stanford prison experiment conducted by Zimbardo in 1972. College students were divided arbitrarily into prison officers and prisoners, and, as is well known, the experiment had to be terminated after 6 days, instead of the planned 2 week period because it had pathologically gone out of control. Many commentators, including Zimbardo himself, have made the comparison between this experiment and the conditions that arose at Abu Ghraib.

But it was a documentary of a real prison, for orphaned boys in Romania, that gave me the most sobering insight into human nature at its most base. A psychologist filmed and interviewed adolescents in this prison, where the prison authorities allowed the inmates to create their own society and effectively run the prison autonomously. What happened is that a two-tiered culture developed comprising the bullies and the bullied. The bullies ran the prison and handed out punishments, which the authorities condoned. The psychologist interviewed one of the head bullies, who explained, quite matter-of-factly, that any new inmate, who didn’t have the requisite physical and mental toughness to become a bully, was soon buggered and lived at the bottom of the social heap. I have seen similar behaviour in a school playground, but, at least in that environment, teachers could intervene, and the children could still escape when they went home. In a prison it would become a living hell.

But I think this adolescent, who was interviewed, is the template for all the despots we have witnessed throughout history, who have such a narcissistic and egotistic view of themselves, that they believe an entire country’s population should bend to their will. It is a combination of supreme egotism with a Darwinian belief in total domination. It’s not dissimilar to the behaviour of the herd leader who defeats all the young bucks so that he can have mating rights with all the females. In fact, the worst of evil that we witness arises from the simple fact that we are tribal by nature – it’s part of our evolutionary heritage.

Nature has evolved mechanisms for population control so that resources are not eaten out. In the case of predators the mechanism is usually one of controlling territory, and this includes the human species. We are very territorial and we are very sensitive to others encroaching, invading, entering, immigrating and partaking of resources that we believe are our birthright. If you live in a country where you believe you are well off, then you not only consider visitors as being less well off, but, by corollary, they must also be envious of you. I was surprised to learn, when I visited the US, that almost everyone I met, not only assumed I would want to live there, but that that was my intention – after all, who wouldn’t? This tribalism, and its inherent territorialism, is part of our evolutionary heritage and it is the root cause of most of the evil we witness in the world.

The creation of in-group out-group categorisation happens at many levels: political, business, religious, cultural, national; and this leads to another social category: identity. But before I discuss identity, there is another famous psychological experiment in the US which is worth reviewing. A camp of teenage boys were divided into two teams, and quickly the division escalated where the boys ridiculed members of the other team, even though, beforehand, they may have been friends. I have observed this behaviour many times amongst adults, and no where is it more apparent than in politics, where people will support an idea if it’s proposed by their political party but reject it if it’s proposed by the opposition. In business situations, I have seen one team always critical of their opposing team as if all its members are incompetent whereas their own members are all exemplary. I believe this behaviour is universal. In the case of the camp experiment, described above, the supervisors overcame the division when they created a critical situation (blocked the water supply) that forced both of the teams to combine their efforts to find a solution. No one expects this behaviour to lead to evil, yet it does so on a regular basis, although it usually requires another attribute I alluded to earlier: identity.

How does this come about? What do I mean by identity? Identity is what links our past to our future. It is what we grew up with and what links us to our group, and, most significantly, what we pass onto the next generation. It is something we feel so strongly about, that when we feel it is threatened, we believe it is worth dying for, and therefore, worth killing for. Identity can be to country, to family, to culture, to religion or to race.

It is when people feel that their identity is threatened that they become particularly virulent in their defensiveness, which can lead to demonisation of the out-group, and, consequently, the ability to treat people as non-human. This is the evil that shocks us yet almost any of us could succumb to. You don’t believe me, but history reveals that it is the truly exceptional person who can resist this rather than the exceptional person who doesn’t. In countries like Rwanda and former Yugoslavia, cultural groups that lived alongside each other became politicised to the extent that they committed genocide. When this happens you are either against them or for them; there is no middle ground. Where do you think you would stand?

Even in our own society, we find politicians and ordinary people willing to demonise outsiders, otherwise known as ‘boat people’ because we feel threatened by them. These are people forced to flee the world’s most oppressive regimes so they have nothing to lose and everything to win. It is their very desperation which makes us so fearful of them, so we incarcerate them, in the middle of the desert or off-shore, where they cannot be seen or heard, or given the opportunity to express their case. We already believe that they don’t deserve so-called ‘Christian’ charity, or any of the rights that we do – they are lesser people, less deserving than us. We rationalise our judgements by calling them ‘queue-jumpers’ and ‘opportunists’, yet our real motives stem from our long ago evolutionary heritage of wanting to maintain our territory and preserve our resources. We are not so far removed from the animal kingdom as we like to think. It is because we have the ability to think, judge and rationalise our actions that makes the things we do, evil. Evil is always a perversion because we are able to justify it – we are the only animal that can do that, and that is what makes us different.

Tuesday, 18 September 2007

The Universe's Interpreters

This is a letter I wrote to Michael C. Corballis after reading something he wrote in New Scientist. He wrote a longer article on the same subject in American Scientist (May-June 2007). Michael Corballis is a professor in Psychology at Auckland University. At the end of this posting I include his response. The epiphany I mention (below) is possibly the only original idea in this entire blog. Everything else is either borrowed, stolen or adapted from other people, or independently derived, which still doesn't make it original.

Dear Professor Corballis

I read your article on recursive thinking in New Scientist (1 September 2007) and it reminded me of an epiphany I had when I was studying philosophy about 10 years ago. It occurred to me that what separated us from other species, more than anything else, was our ability to form concepts within concepts ad infinitum, which is similar to what you describe as embedded recursion, though not quite the same.

If one takes writing, as I’m doing now, we have individual words that have their own meanings. But we can create sentences of those words that then have a meaning beyond the individual words, and then we can create a string of sentences that eventually may form an overarching argument or a story. And perhaps it was with storytelling that we first exercised this ability. But we do it with everything: music, architecture, engineering and even mathematics. We take individual parts assemble them mentally to form a larger part that has a different function than the individual parts. I think mathematics is the best example because it is so obviously structured this way while we are learning it. Yet, I believe it is through art that we originally developed this unique skill.

But this was not the epiphany. The epiphany was realising that nature also consists of different levels of entities within entities. If you take an individual organic cell, it is like a miniature world that has a function completely different to the collection of cells, that, combined, create an individual organism like a human, which has another function altogether. And it occurred to me that we are uniquely suited to comprehend nature because we have the ability to conceptualise entities within entities in exactly the same way that nature manifests itself. This is why we have become the self-designated interpreters of the universe, or, at least, the only ones we know of.

On the subject of language, I’ve often wondered how we would think without language, and the obvious answer is we would think in images as we do in our dreams. Again, I wondered if our artwork was our first attempt to project this imagery as a form of expression, communication and social bonding. The language of dreams is imagery and metaphor, so I am not surprised that when we read stories we can so readily create our own images in our heads, and this is one of the reasons that cinema and video, in all its manifestations, hasn’t managed to kill off books. The other reason is that a book can take you inside the character’s head in a way that movies can’t. In the case of a movie you depend on the actor to interpret it for you. I know I’m going off the track a bit here, but I’m speaking from the perspective of someone who writes fiction.

In science and engineering we attempt to visualise things when we explain them or interpret them. Engineers will always draw a picture when they try to explain something. Metaphor is an analogy that allows us to communicate something new by employing something already known. My point being that we are essentially visual creatures, and that is our medium of choice when we strive to comprehend the world. I notice that you believe our earliest language was in sign. I understand that we use our hands when we talk because it helps us to create the concept in our head that we are trying to communicate, rather than for the benefit of the listener. Is this the basis of your thesis: that thinking with our hands preceded thinking with language?

Below is Michael Corballis's response.

I agree with you entirely, and I also like your epiphany, which I’ll think more about.

The idea that language arose from manual gestures is based on a number of considerations: (1) apes can be taught something approximating sign language, but can’t be taught to speak; (2) the brain areas involved in speech in humans are involved in manual action in primates; (3) the sign languages of the deaf are fully expressive languages; and (4) we all gesture as we speak. I agree that gesturing may help us form concepts while we speak, but I suspect that our gesturing also reflects an earlier mode of communication.

Saturday, 15 September 2007

Free Will

Below is an argument that I formed and submitted to American Scientist in response to an essay by Gregory Graffin and William Provine, who conducted a survey amongst biology students on their beliefs in religion, God and free will. It was their argument on free will that evoked my response. When they say: 'it adds nothing to the science of human behaviour' (quoted below) they are right. As far as science is concerned, if human behaviour can't be explained by a combination of genetics and environment, then invoking 'free will' won't help. It's a bit like invoking God to explain evolution (see my blog posting on Intelligent Design), so I can understand their argument.

When it comes to studying anything to do with consciousness, we can only examine the consequences caused by a conscious being interacting with its environment. It's not unlike the dilemma we face in quantum mechanics where we don't know what's happening until we take a measurement or make an observation. If we didn't experience consciousness as individuals we would probably claim that it didn't exist, because there is no direct evidence of it except through our own thoughts. And this also applies to free will, which, after all, is a manifestation of consciousness. Effectively, Graffin and Provine are saying that free will is an illusion created by the fact that we are conscious beings, but, if one takes their argument to its logical conclusion, all conscious thoughts are caused by an interaction of our genetic disposition with our environment. So what is the evolutionary purpose of consciousness if our thoughts are just an unnecessary by-product?

Below is my original argument that I submitted to American Scientist.

In the July-August 2007 issue of American Scientist (Evolution, Religion and Free Will) Gregory W. Graffin and William B. Provine contend that free will is non-existent because it ‘adds nothing to the science of human behaviour.’ This would follow logically from the premise that any idea, concept or belief that can’t be scientifically examined, measured or hypothetically tested, must be an illusion or a cultural relic. They point out that evolutionary biologists, who believe in free will, suffer from the misconception that choice and free will are synonymous. One always has a choice – it’s just that when it’s made it’s predetermined. I sense a contradiction. So there is no ‘intentionality’, which lies at the heart of consciousness as we experience it, and is discussed by John Searle in his book, MiND (2004). This leads to a conundrum: if all intentionality is predetermined, then why has evolution given us consciousness? It's hard to escape the conclusion that the 'illusion' of free will must therefore have evolutionary value – maybe that’s its contribution to the science of human behaviour.

Living in the 21st Century

This is in response to a one page essay by William Laurance, a biologist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Balboa, Panama, published in New Scientist (1 September 2007), entitled: Cursing Condoms. This is a very good article that discusses the most important issue of the 21st Century: human population growth. Laurance attacks both the Catholic Church and the current American Administration for their backward and morally irresponsible attitudes towards birth control, and towards condoms in particular. He remarks, ‘With a different leadership, the US could become part of the solution, not the problem.’ What I find strange about this whole issue, is that I was aware of this ‘problem’ when I was a teenager, over 40 years ago. I find it extraordinary that, not only do people not recognise it as ‘The Problem’ facing us, but that we still have to deal with anachronistic policies and criteria at the highest level of global politics in order to confront it.

I will not repeat Laurance’s arguments here, but I recommend this article to all and sundry. He contends that, being a Panamanian, he sees the consequences of this negative policy-making first hand. He rightly spells out all the problems arising from human encroachment: fewer resources, greater conflict, greater division between the rich and the poor on a national and global scale, and the diminution of other species world wide. He also points out the most obvious and effective solution. Greater educational opportunities to women, world wide, is the only truly effective means of achieving a zero population growth. But there are other factors. Our current economic paradigm is based on infinite economic growth which is geared to infinite population growth, and is the reason that America is becoming the 3rd most populated country in the world. America believes, that to achieve parity economic growth, it must maintain population growth. Obviously, this is not sustainable and eventually we will need a new economic paradigm that has sustainability at its core. Will this do away with economic growth? I don’t know. If we can have economic growth with sustainability of the earth’s resources and zero population growth then the answer is no. If we can’t then the answer is yes: economic growth will stop.

What is obvious is that we can’t continue with the status quo. Six years ago I read an article by E. O. Wilson in Scientific American where he said: for everyone in the world to have the same standard of living as America, we would need 4 planet earths. I heard this statement reiterated more recently, but I can’t remember where.

There have been a number of mass extinctions in the course of the earth’s history, the dinosaur extinction is the most well known but there have been at least 2 others that were equally catastrophic. But what is most worrying is that at no time in the earth’s history has the rate of species extinction been as great as it is now.

In 2000, I was lucky enough to be part of a small audience at Oxford University to hear the scientific advisor to the British government (I’ve forgotten his name, but I think his first name was Ron) give an address on this issue. He showed graph after graph in a Power Point presentation demonstrating how water, energy and land was being eaten up by human consumption, as if there was no tomorrow, literally. Why wasn’t his voice heard beyond that small lecture hall? I’ve no idea. Afterwards, friends of mine made the observation that he had told them nothing new, and were disappointed that he had no solutions. I will admit a small secret: I don’t have any either.

The 21st Century faces a number of problems, of which global warming is only one, and they are all caused by us, so we must find the solution or the earth will find its own. We have the technology for global education, as well as for achieving greater efficiencies in all areas of human activity: energy, food and water; but do we have the will? Whilst economic growth based on human growth, and infinite resources, remains the global paradigm for progress and success, we can be certain of failure. The 21st Century will see more change than any other century preceding it, including the 20th, but it is up to us whether this change will be an improvement or a catastrophe.

For a more detailed analysis on this topic read the following article by E.O.Wilson:
Commentary by responsible scientists like Wilson are unpalatable to most politicians, and this is a major concern for our collective future.

Saturday, 8 September 2007


This is another letter I wrote to New Scientist - in response to an essay by Helen Phillips entitled, Is God good? She discusses various studies done by academics examining the effects of religion on people's behaviour and ethics. The general consensus seemed to divide people between 'extrinsic' (those who are overtly religious and belong to religious organisations) and 'intrinsic' (those whose religious beliefs are more personal and less overt). It was found that the 'extrinsic' tended to have an 'in group' mentality, though it must be emphasised this is a broad generalisation, that made them less tolerant of people of 'other' religious persuasions, whereas the 'intrinsic' were more tolerant of 'others'.

This is a brief synopsis - she also discussed the evolutionary (social) value that may have been inherent in forming religious beliefs, as well as how we may have come to believe in a God or Gods as external supernatural beings. There was also a consensus that, while morality seems to be inherent in humans, it is not dependent on religiosity per se.

As a side issue, Karen Armstrong in The History of God, puts forward a thesis that our idea of God changes over history. In other words, God seems to exist, at least in our writings, in a historical context. But I would reference Augustine who seemed to appreciate that God was part of our 'inner journey' as much as something external. Or to quote 19th century German philosopher, Ludwig Feuerbach: God does not exist independently of humanity.

Reference: New Scientist, 1 September 2007, pp32-6

When I was a young child, my father, who had spent 2.5 years as a POW, told me something I’ve never forgotten. He said: there are 2 types of Christians. There are Christians who go to church every week and wear their religion on their sleeve. Then there are Christians who don’t claim to be Christians yet they behave like Christians. In my now 56 years of living I’ve never seen anything to contradict that statement.

More relevant to Phillips’ topic, there are 2 types of religion: institutional religion that is political in every sense of the word; and religion as a personal experience, that is part of life’s journey, either as a unique, possibly one-off experience, or as an evolvement of one’s spirituality. I believe this is the distinction between ‘extrinsic’ and ‘intrinsic’ religion that is discussed by Phillips.

In the case of intrinsic or ‘quest’ religion, it is experienced as something ‘beyond’ the self. We can’t even explain how consciousness emerges from the neuron activity of our brain, so how can we explain a sense of ‘supra-consciousness’, and why should it be dismissed simply because it is no more explicable than ordinary consciousness? After all, they are both an experience as opposed to an objective observable phenomenon.

Sunday, 2 September 2007

Where does mathematics come from?

This is a more serious philosophical discourse than other theses, or mini-theses, I’ve posted so far. It’s an argument I’ve had with a number of philosophers, and non-philosophers. It's a question that most philosophers, indeed most people, seem to have an opinion on.

The short answer is that it’s a mixture of both invention and discovery. Mathematics requires creativity to achieve breakthrough discoveries as does any field of science. But I’m short-circuiting the argument. A good starting point is to reference a book I’ve read, Where Mathematics Comes From, by George Lakoff and Rafael E. Nunez. This is an excellent book on mathematics, covering all the basics and a number of esoteric topics like calculus, transfinite numbers and Euler’s famous equation: e + 1 = 0. This equation brings together such diverse fields as trigonometry, logarithms, calculus, complex algebra and power series into one simple relationship. The physicist, Richard Feynman, who discovered the equation a month before his 15th birthday, called it ‘the most remarkable formula in math’. Lakoff and Nunez provide a very accessible derivation of this equation as the crowning piece of exposition in their book. I must say at the outset that I have neither the expertise nor the ability to write a book like this. It is a very good book on mathematics. All my arguments and contentions deal with its philosophical content.

Lakoff and Nunez eschew any notion that mathematics is ‘discovered’, which is not an uncommon position. They argue, reasonably enough, that mathematics can only come from an ‘embodied mind’, therefore any suggestion that mathematics ‘already exists a priori’ is a conundrum that defies rational explanation. They argue that the only mathematics we know of comes from the human mind, therefore the onus of proof for any alternative view rests with the proponent of that view. In other words, the default point of view has to be that mathematics only exists as a product of the human mind. There is no evidence to support any other point of view.

Just to address that last point: all scientific discoveries are products of the human mind, nevertheless they exist independently of the human mind as well. The specific problem with giving mathematics the same status is that it doesn’t exist materially independently of the human mind. I will come back to this point later.

But my main problem with Lakoff’s and Nunez’s book is the assertion that all mathematics can be explained by ‘conceptual metaphor’. I’ve since learned that this particular philosophical premise is a brainchild of George Lakoff’s, who has written numerous books explaining the significance of metaphor in human endeavour, including philosophy, science, and, of course, mathematics. George Lakoff is Professor of Linguistics at Berkeley University, and I’ve since had correspondence with him. I’ve come to the conclusion that we agree to disagree, though he never responded to my last correspondence.

Many of my criticisms of Professor Lakoff’s philosophy addressed in this blog (though not all) have been made to him directly. In his book, Philosophy in the Flesh, which he co-wrote with Mark Johnson (not Nunez), Lakoff seems to find fault with every philosopher he’s acquainted with, both living and dead. He does this by employing his own 'philosophy of metaphor' (my terminology, not his) to give the reader his interpretation of their ideas. Much of this posting deals with Lakoff's use of the word metaphor. Its relevance to mathematical epistemology is explained in the next paragraph.

Basically, a conceptual metaphor ‘maps’ from a ‘source domain’ to a ‘target domain’ to use Lakoff’s own nomenclature. In the case of mathematics, the source domain is the grouping of objects, and activities that involve removal or combining elements of groups or complete groups in various ways. The target domain are the concepts inside our heads, which we call numbers, and how we manipulate them to represent events in the real world. Target domains can also be graphical representations like number lines and geometrical figures. This is not a verbatim representation of Lakoff’s and Nunez’s ideas, but my interpretation to ensure brevity of exposition without losing the gist of their philosophical premise. I have no problem with this aspect of their argument. I agree that mathematics is one of the most efficacious mediums we have for bridging the external world with our internal world. I have previously explained that the experiential concept of the external and internal world seems to be the starting point for many of my philosophical discourses. Where I disagree with Lakoff and Nunez is their assertion that this ‘bridge’ is strictly metaphorical.

According to The Oxford Companion to the Mind, metaphor is determined by context. This definition of a metaphor assumes that a word, phrase or term that is used in a metaphorical context must also have a literal context. In the case of Lakoff’s conceptual metaphors, that comprise all of mathematics, the metaphorical and literal contexts appear to be the same. I asked Professor Lakoff: ‘In what context is 2+2=4 metaphorical and in what context is it literal? If I say I want 3 of those, am I talking metaphorically and literally at the same time?’ The impression I got from his book is that mathematics has no literal context, only a metaphorical context. In other words, with ‘conceptual metaphors’, he has created a whole new field of metaphors that are permanently metaphorical. I can see no other interpretation and Lakoff has failed to enlighten me when I challenged him specifically on this. Assuming my interpretation is correct, this begs the question: they are metaphors for what? The obvious answer, going back to the original ideas set out in the ‘source domain’ and the ‘target domain’, is that they are metaphors for reality.

In Philosophy in the Flesh, Lakoff continually talks about metaphor as if it’s the progenitor of all ideas and concepts. He analyses a philosophical idea by reducing it to metaphor then presents it as if the metaphor came first. I will discuss an example that’s relevant to the topic: time and space. Lakoff rightly expounds on how we often use terms associated with distance to talk about time – it’s like we visualise time as distance. In relativity theory, this visualisation is real, due to a peculiar property of light. In ancient cultures and some indigenous cultures, however, the reverse is true: they refer to distance in terms of time. When Eratosthenes calculated the earth’s circumference around 230BC, he measured the distance he traveled from the well in Syene (Aswan) to Alexandria by the number of days he traveled by camel. If this was a metaphor and not literal then his whole enterprise would have failed. As it was, his calculation of the earth’s circumference was out by 15% according to modern measurements (ref: Encyclopaedia Britannica).

Everyone knows that there is a mathematical relationship between distance, time and speed, which is literal and not metaphorical. Now all physicists know that this relationship breaks down at sub-atomic speeds and astronomical distances due to relativity, so how can we say it’s true or literal or real? To add a further spoke in the works, when we have quantum tunneling the relationship ceases to exist altogether. But these anomalies are not resolved by saying that they are all metaphors and not real. They are resolved by finding the correct mathematical relationships that nature follows in these circumstances.

Physicists like Roger Penrose and Paul Davies have written extensively on the remarkable concordance we find between mathematics and the physical world. Lakoff claims that this concordance is purely metaphorical, and by his definition of metaphor (source domain: events in real world; target domain: concepts in our heads) I would agree. Using Lakoff’s own logic, mathematics is a metaphorical representation of the real world, but in this use of the term metaphor there is no distinction between metaphorical language and literal language – metaphor is a direct translation. Lakoff often uses the term metaphor where I would use the word definition. When he defines a concept in terms of other known concepts he calls it a conceptual metaphor or a conceptual blend. Conceptual blend is bringing 2 or more concepts together to form a new concept. Conceptual blend makes sense, but conceptual metaphor doesn’t if there are no distinct literal and metaphorical contexts in which to make it a metaphor. I’ve also argued that where there is a causal relationship between 2 concepts, one is not necessarily, by default, a metaphor for the other. An example of this is periodicity being a direct consequence of rotation; day and night resulting from the earth’s rotation is the best known example. In Where Mathematics Comes From, Lakoff implies that this relationship is metaphorical.

Personally, I call Lakoff’s conceptual metaphors literal metaphors, because if they were literal then my entire argument on this issue would evaporate, which, of course, would be preferable for both of us.

Lakoff also maintains that all theories (in physics at least) are metaphorical, which is not an issue I will pursue here. I did point out to him, however, that some of his metaphorical interpretations (of Einstein’s theories in particular) were incorrect or misleading. I referenced Roger Penrose, who is more knowledgeable on this subject than either of us.

Lakoff argues that physics is effectively mathematical modeling that happens to get very close to what we observe, and there are many who would agree with this interpretation. (Renowned physicist, Stephen Hawking, subscribes to this view.) But many physicists would say that the mathematical concordance we find in nature goes beyond modeling because there are too many cases where the mathematics provides an insight into nature that we didn’t expect to find (for example: Maxwell’s equations giving us the constant speed of light in a vacuum or Dirac’s equation giving us anti-matter). Irrespective of this argument, nature follows mathematical relationships at all observable levels of scale. Lakoff, by the way, argues that there are no ‘laws of nature’, which is another argument, though not altogether irrelevant, that I won’t pursue here.

This has been a lengthy detour, but it brings me back to the point I made about the status of mathematics existing independently of the human mind. Most people struggle with this notion – it’s like believing in God. It evokes the idea of an abstract realm independent of human abstract thought. People call this the Platonic realm after Plato’s fabled realm of perfect ‘forms’. The real world, in which we live, being a shadow of this perfect transcendental world. Roger Penrose calls himself a Platonist (refer The Emperor’s New Mind), mathematically speaking, because he believes the mathematics we discover already exists ‘out there’. Paul Davies eschews the idea of Platonism (refer The Goldilocks Enigma) but in The Mind of God, he devotes a whole chapter to what he calls ‘the mathematical secret’: the way the physical world is ‘shadowed’ by mathematics.

I call myself a Pythagorean because Pythagoras was the first (in Western philosophy at least) who seemed to appreciate that mathematics is an inherent aspect of the natural world, like a latent code waiting for someone like us to decipher it. As our knowledge of physics progresses, this realisation only seems to become more necessary to our comprehension of the universe. I can’t help but feel that Pythagoras had no idea how deep his insight really was. Lakoff calls Pythagoras’s philosophical insight a ‘folk theory’, but it’s a folk theory that launched Western science as we know it, so I would call it a paradigm, and one that has had unparalleled success over a 2,500 year history.

Philosophers, since the time of Russell and Wittgenstein, have mostly argued that mathematics is a sub-branch of logic, but Godel, Turing and Church, have all demonstrated, in various ways, that one cannot create all mathematics from a set of known axioms (Godel’s famous incompleteness theorem). This is one point that Lakoff and I appear to agree upon.

What many people fail to understand, or take into account, is that mathematics is not so much about numbers but the relationship between numbers – just look at how much mathematics is written without numbers. Robyn Arionrhod, who teaches mathematics at Monash University, Melbourne, made a similar point in her book, Einstein’s Heroes (effectively, a well written exposition on Maxwell’s equations). If one looks at mathematics from this perspective, one can see that the relationships cannot be invented – they are discovered. Mathematics is essentially a problem-solving endeavour, and this begs the question: if one is looking for a solution to a puzzle, does the solution already exist before someone finds it, or only after it’s found? Think: Fermat's Last Theorem; solved by Andrew Wiles 357 years after it was proposed. Think: Poincare's Conjecture; proposed 1904 and solved in 2002 by Grigory Perelman (read Donal O'Shea's account). Think: The Reimann Hypothesis; proposed 1859, still unsolved. To answer that question, I suggest, is to answer the philosophical conundrum: is mathematics invented or discovered?

Footnote: I sent a copy of this to Professor Lakoff as soon as I posted it, offering him the right to reply.

For an alternative point of view, read Lakoff’s and Nunez’s book, Where Mathematics Comes From. For a physicist’s perspective, read Penrose’s The Emperor’s New Mind or Davies’ The Mind of God. Arionrhod’s Einstein’s Heroes is a good read that indirectly supports the physicist’s perspective.

See also my later posting, Jan. 08: Is mathematics evidence of a transcendental realm? Amongst other things, I discuss Gregory Chaitin's book, Thinking about Godel and Turing.