The Zhuangzi (part 4) The Butterfly Dream

Posted by on July 28th, 2008

Perhaps the most famous story in the Zhuangzi is to be found at the end of Chapter 2.

Once Zhuang Zhou dreamt he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting and fluttering around, happy with himself and doing as he pleased. He didn’t know he was Zhuang Zhou. Suddenly he woke up and there he was, solid and unmistakeable Zhuang Zhou. But he didn’t know if he was Zhuang Zhou who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was Zhuang Zhou. Between Zhuang Zhou and a butterfly there must be some distinction! This is called the Transformation of Things. Basic Writings p45

This seems to me to be a remarkable forecast of Descartes deus deceptus and the postmodern revisitation of epistemic and ontic uncertainty in the ‘brain in a vat’ thought experiment.

Obviously similar themes are being approached. It is interesting to note that the uncertainty that he peddles is not total scepticism. In other words he does not say there is no Zhuang Zhou or there is no butterfly, or that there can only be one and not the other. Rather his scepticism is an exercise in the uncertainty of objectivity. Note that he is convinced of being a butterfly at one point of time and in the next instance convinced of being Zhuang Zhou, and it is only on reflection between these two states of seeming certainty of being that he is led to uncertainty. That he has being (that he is) does not change but what, how and where he is undergoes metamorphoses. The ‘transformation of things’.

It is a wonderful piece of literary symbolism that he should pick the Butterfly as his alter ego. Quite aside from its similar flightiness and anarchic lifestyle to Zhuang Zhou, the butterfly is of course a marvel of nature and a paradigm example of a creature born of transformation.

Zhuang Zhou is certain of his being a butterfly – a state of being though that exists only in the “dream”. His dream like state was one of certainty. Similarly once awake he seems certain that he is Zhuang Zhou, it is only the transition from dream-state to waking-state that causes his uncertainty.

The controversial message here is that dream is objective, and that awakening is to enter into uncertainty and ignorance. Thus in reality we are all dreaming.

But as with all of the Zhuangzi each story has a point, a message. As already noted much of the Zhuangzi expounds a relativistic, pluralistic and perspectivist approach to philosophy and life, and the dream of the butterfly is not different. Whereas Descartes was concerned to find objective truth by scrutinizing and discarding all that he could be uncertain of, the Zhuangzi is concerned to open us to the possibilities of “transformation”, metamorphoses and flux.

Chinese philosopher Kuang-Ming Wu in his famous Dream in NIetzsche and Zhuangzi makes some comparisons between the two.

Having concluded that reality is subjective and dream is objective, Nietzsche did not say that we should regard dreams as some nocturnal fantasies that we should dismiss. Instead, he advises us that we should use them as a guide in our daily activities. Simlarly with Zhuang Zhou, having concluded that there must be, ontologically, a distinction between the butterfly and himself, though epistemologically unsure, and that this is nothing more than a transformation of things, he, too, advises us that we must forever live and be content with this constant transformation. – C.W.Chan The Philosopher, Volume LXXXIII No.2

That a dream may possess sights, sounds, feelings and emotions that seem real at the time, is a famous example of how one may argue for epistemic uncertainty. But the next question most philosophers normally ask is – how do we get ourselves out of this conundrum (the ultimate solopsistic paralysis – unsure or even convinced that there is nothing other than ourselves and that all reality is illusion)? Not so though Zhuangzi, he is content that we should suffer uncertainty. It is a lesson in detachment (note how this influences Zen buddhism), if we can realize the apparent reality of dreams, can we not also appreciate the dreamlike quality of the real?

And in finally subjugating the concept of the objective and allowing in its place the chaotic flux of possibilities, we can become (like the hinge of dao that moves freely) a butterfly “flitting and fluttering around, happy with himself and doing as he pleased.”

It is a challenge to reject absolutes and abstract labellings, the ideal person (as discussed in earlier posts) is one who is able to transfer themselves effortlessly and seamlessly from one situation to another without the disablement of distinguishments between real and unreal, right and wrong, etc. In this case the transformation between butterfly and man, dream and awake need not be painful. Uncertainty need not mean solopsistic paralysis, but an openness to flux, change and various different realities.

Like the flitting and floating butterfly, Zhuangzi alludes that the fully realised person follows the breeze yet arrives at the flower, its actins are spontaneous and free and it never wears itself out fighting against nature and things as they are.

In conclusion it seems novel to me that such a profound epistemic uncertainty and sceptical relativism should be proposed in such a therapeutic manner. And as often appears to be the case in Eastern Philosophy a profound philosophical widsom is expounded with the hope for practical effects (an aim that western philosophy in its ever increasing abstraction seems sometimes to neglect).

The Zhuangzi (part 3) – philosophy of language

Posted by on July 19th, 2008

The Zhuangzi offers a relativistic, perspectivist and non-essentialist analysis of language. In one analogy the author describes language as being like a fish net, an item that is only useful until the fish has been caught, but which is then obsolete and should be forgotten about until a new fish (or in this case a new meaning) is sought.

Words are not just wind. Words have something to say. But if what they have to say is not fixed, then do they really say something? Or do they say nothing? People suppose that words are different from the peeps of baby birds, but is there any difference, or isn’t there? – Ch2. Basic Writings.

It is possible to interpret this text in a sort of proto-wittgensteinian way. An anti-essentialist (and by extension logical-positivist) exposition of language is proposed. In the manner that the late Wittgenstein proposed “meaning is use” there seems to be a similar approach to language in the Zhuangzi.

Words are “signifiers”, that is they represent something, but that which they signify is not meaningful or discoverable in and of themselves. One cannot take a word, isolate it and strip it down to its essence and essential meaning (a claim that the logical positivists made). Meaning is not constant, rather it is dependent upon and itself contributes to the general context of the “text” in which it finds itself; statement, sentence, paragraph, discourse etc. Words do not have a pancontextual meaning, but only have or gain meaning when we attribute meaning to it in particular circumstances.

There is an interesting parrallel and bridge between the Zhuangzi and the early and later Wittgenstein. Towards the end of the Tractatus Wittgenstein teasingly tells us that the book (and indeed philosophy and language) is senseless:

6.54 My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.) Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

Similarly having advocated that we throw away language once we have caught the meaning, Zhuangzi asks:

Where can I find a man who has forgotten words so I can have a word with him? Basic Writings p140

The Zhuangzi proceeds beyond this general contextualism to provide a more detailed analysis of language, quite remarkable considering its antiquity and the comparitively recent interest that philosophy has given to the topic.

The Zhuangzi distinguishes between three kinds of language. Watson (1968) translates these as “imputed words”, “repeated words” and “goblet words”. The first are words attributed to a great historical or legendary figure, which increases the impact that they have. The second are words which gain credibility by virtue of repetative familiarity, the analytical conclusion being that the familiar is often mistaken for the self-evident. Finally the third type “goblet words” are words whose meaning changes, Zhuangzi describes these as “words that are no-words”. It is a type of language that constantly refreshes itself thus more accurately being able to convey meaning – much like a goblet it is a vessel which may filled and emptied and thus more closely mirrors the distinctions necessary for understanding.

Zhuangzi it seems was influenced by his teacher and debating partner Hui Shi who held a similarly perspectivist philosophy of language. He focused on comparitive language – the type which is most transparently relativistic and perspectival. For example he said the word “tall” has no fixed range of reference (or therefore meaning). Tall for a Giraffe is not Tall for a Horse. Hui Shi generalised this relativistic aspect and concluded that no distinctions or differences rested on external reality, they are all merely projections of different perspectives.

Apart from the interesting superficial comparisons between the Zhuangzi and more contempory philosophies of language (Wittgenstein, Lyotard, Barthes, Derrida etc.) the ideas expressed fundamentally underpin an anarchic epistemology and existential morality, some more of which I hope to explore in subsequent posts.

The Cardinals speech

Posted by on May 10th, 2008

I wondered if indeed you would post on this, but was suprised at the largely negative and dare I say polemical response.

Why no mention of his entreaty to religous believers to “respect atheists” and agnostics and to treat them with “deep esteem”?

And lets not forget the implicit mea culpa in his comments that quite possibly some of the adverse reaction to religion in this country is the fault of religion and religious believers…. it seems to me this is rather an important statement.

Your comments were interesting and I will deal with just a couple.

You suggest that there is a contradiction in saying that theology is coherent and yet God is unknowable?
But there is no contradiction. One may argue quite feasibly that in terms of material evidence for a spiritual entity there is no evidence.
But despite Dawkins (as a common example) insistence that lack of evidence renders the proposition meaningless, this is as Wittgenstein would point out not a solution to the question but a dissolution.
It is like me asking “can you see that invisible man over there?” and berating you as a liar if you say “yes I can see” or stupid if you say “no I cant see”.

However it is possible to advance to an utterance by analogy. And much philosophical speculation on the existence of God(s) etc. originates in analogical thought. Divine watchmakers, the author of destiny and so on.
Analogous reasoning is of course an entirely different type of reasoning than empiricism.

Ah, but, you might say an analogous God does not equate to a real God… this indeed may be true, but I would propose that the more coherent response would be to say that the attributes of an analogous God may not correspond to a real divinity. By which of course I mean such attributes as goodness, knowledge, absolute power etc.

The via negativa a theology of negation that I have mentioned plenty of times before of course doesnt posit positive attributes to a divinity – hence of course the gist of the Augustine quote.

But we are missing out one key factor here that essentially muddy’s the water and makes the argument difficult. If theological statements about God were purely analogous then one could take it or leave it with absolute ease. But as an example Christianity does not claim to be solely analogous, it claims that along with the ineffable approach of analogous reasoning it also bases its belief on positivistic statements which they call “revelation”.

This claim to revelation then is used to systematically shore up analogous reasoning and the two tanatalisingly dance around the other providing the other (particularly in the mind of the believer) with necessary balance.

Dawkins comments his extreme dislike of this “I believe because I believe” reasoning but ignores the fact that those who believe attribute some sort of truth-claim to the revelatory aspect of their religious belief. And that as time goes on can be very hard to undermine.

“Implicit atheism” in babies.
This seems to be a particularly weak conjecture, do you have any evidence about what it is that babies in particular believe if anything?
I could perhaps sympathise with you a little more if you were to ascribe implicit atheism to mean a neutral statement of belief – a state of affairs where ignorance is the de facto position.
If this is how you mean it then implicit atheism is not a belief system in any sense of the term. And why simply pick out theological opinions as a paradigm case for infantile belief systems? I dare say that babies are also implicit nihilists, implicitly asexual, implicitly non-nationalistic, implicitly self-centred etc.

“The burden of proof is not on atheists to proof unbelief” Why get yourself caught up in fly-bottle like this? Belief or unbelief is a psycho-cognitive state of affairs not an epistemic one.
The burden of proof belongs to an entirely different language game than the psycho-cognitive one. Proof only enters into the matter if and when one chooses to attempt a correlation between belief in something and observable or verifiable statements about something.
And of course a “lack of proof” does not equally also mean the absence of proof, but all scientists should be aware of this state of affairs.

Now in terms of “if God exists where does the burden of proof lay” then if I am a theist and wish to convince you that God exists beyond the merely psycho-cognitive proposition that you ought to because I do, then yes indeed the burden of proof, or rather the burden to provide an epistemic framework with which to test any such hypotheses rests with me the theist.
But similarly the same burden to provide an epistemic framework is placed upon the evangelical atheist who wishes to demonstrate to his God-believing contemporaries that there is no God.

And the trouble with this “burden” is as I have already intimated before muddied by the fact that belief-systems often dance around a mixture of psycho-cognitive-like and epistemic-like statements.

To cut an already very long story short, a convinced theist and a convinced atheist have about as much chance of convincing the other about the rectitude of their point of view as the Wimbledon Tennis Tournament has of being won by virtue of a checkmate.

Although I agree with your comments on the anti-pomo views, I would point out that he isn’t expressing a particularly modernist viewpoint either. The key issue of respect and tolerance that was completely absent from your analysis are principles of a decidedly pluralistic and postmodernist understanding of the human condition.

And as for his comment on private belief versus public expressions of that belief I am firmly of the opinion that a pluralistic society should encourage that form of life.

And finally your point about the fusion of religion with rationality and science, and your demand that if they wish to play rational then they should play by the rules…

well you probably know what I have to say!

There is no objective rulebook and the internal logic of each language game is defined by its users.

*(Btw this post was originally intended as a comment but for some reason it would not – or at present is not posting – needless to say conspiracy theories abound!)

Analysing the ethical debate on HFE

Posted by on March 28th, 2008

It probably suprises some readers that a blog on philosophy and politics, that spends a good deal of time discussing ethics and morality (either meta-ethical or applied) should spend so little time discussing possibly the most contentious ethical debate of the 21st century so far (in the UK at least). I refer of course to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill.

Our silence on this matter, other than a comment by me on the issue of rhetoric in ethical debate, and Ac-1’s review of a public debate on genetic modification, is born out of two things. Firstly the acceptance that quite probably we will disagree, and secondly our mutually large workloads at the moment.

Anyway the debate itself now is getting much more heated across the nation, and the press is in overdrive. Today certain papers have a selection of contrasting public opinions on the debate, and from these I have decided to provide a descriptive analysis of the ethical debates taking place around this proposed legislation. As descriptive ethics is an empirical method there will be no value-judgements made as regards whether these proposals are morally right or wrong.

Who Is Right?

First of all obviously this debate has very well defined positions for and against, and indeed the more well-defined (and therefore more deeply entrenched) these viewpoints are, the more contentious and “nasty” the debate tends to be. Both sides then, those who support embyro research and those who do not, define themselves not only with regard to their own beliefs but also with regard to the beliefs of their opponents. Thus an arbitrary act of splitting occurs and the debate becomes one of binary opposites the good versus the bad – only from the panoromic view of the descriptive ethicist (that I am adopting here) these values are empty; for both sides naturally view themselves as being morally good in comparison to their morally deviant opponents.

Some examples from correspondances:

The main contents of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill reveal to us the level of ungodliness to which this nations leaders have sunk.

and alternatively

Religion has always regarded science as its enemy, as the more we learn, the more difficult it is to keep faith.

Thus on the one hand the opponents of the HFE bill are able to define their morally righteous position in contrast to the morally decadant supporters of it. And alternatively one supporter of the bill characterises the views of the opposition as the death throws of outdated superstition. For the opponents of the bill who are religiously motivated the bills supporters are attacking the creation of God (the ultimate error) and are advocating an “unholy gospel” that is becoming an”evil religion in itself” or in other words the fundamental ‘godly’ values that underpin society are being attacked and thus society itself is in collapse. By perfect contrast one supporter of the bill who views all opponents as religious “loonies“, whilst admitting that science is neither perfect nor always succesful suggests it is nonetheless (in comparison to religion) in the vanguard of human progress for “without it mankind will only stagnate.”

First Analytical Conclusion Our first conclusion must be that from their respective positions, the values of the opposite is always incoherent. Thus one is either ungodly (aka evil) or one is superstitious (i.e. stupid). The moral rectitude of the one is only enhanced by the faults of the other. But from our panoramic viewpoint there is a serious problem, who defines Truth and Progress? In comparison to “God’s truth” all human truth seems irrelevant; or in comparison to metaphysical concepts the technological advances and innovations made possible by the natural sciences make all other “Progress” seem inadequate.

Thus already we should observe that there are mutually incompatible value systems in place, a difference as vast as binary form is from decimal.

Types of Argument For

Lets now look at the various types of argument that are being employed by either side – for when we consider the variety of these we should also be able to observe the different language games being employed.

Those who argue for the HFE proposals fall into three categories: the argument from scientific progress, the argument from scientific results, the argument for scientific method.

The argument from scientific progress. This argument is broadly deontological and objective. It argues that science is the best means we have of observing and understanding the material world and that the increase in scientific knowledge is commeansurable with human progress. Ergo if human progress is good, anything that increases scientific knowledge is good. As a result the ethical objections to embryo research (whether on religious grounds or not) are either a) irrelevant considerations altogether (scientific knowledge is always good) or b) of secondary concern (scientific knowledge is neutral it is its applications that may be morally evaluated).

This viewpoint I would suggest is the official scientific view (i.e. that of the professional institutional scientist.)

The argument from scientific results. This type of argument is broadly teoleological and consequentialist and often Personalist. Its first concern is end-results, and may be characterised by the simplistic formula “the ends justify the means.” This does not necessarily imply that “anything goes” but it measures the moral or ethical value of scientific research by its results. Again it is very “progress” orientated (and thus subjective in that respect). But interestingly it is also a type of argument that anticipates a retrospective justification (it is both forward and backward looking). As one correspondent argued:

Science may not always get it right, or produce the results we expect

but, the implication is, without trying we would not know. The logic of this argument is fairly straightforward, the scientific method identifies a problem (in this case incurable illnesses) it proposes a solution (genetic modification) and establishes research protocols (stem cell research) and lists its requirements (embryos – among other things). Scientific researchers then propose a hypotheses, anticipates results, and justifies its research with expectant hope of success. It is not simply advocating tinkering around with a few embryos to see what happens. It has a specific telos/end in view. In this case the means of curing various thusfar incurable illnesses. (Incidentally when such research suceeds it provides evidence and rhetorical weight to the more objective views concerning the rectitude or primacy of the scientific method).

This sort of argument is also Personalist and in the forum of general debate can also become emotivist. It is important to point out that the actual scientific reasons for conducting this research are not personalist or emotivist (in general- though I would be suprised if this were universally true of all research). Therefore Personalist and Emotivist arguments are often employed by those scientists and non-scientists alike who stand to benefit from the success of the research.

Why should our son be denied a possible cure, remission or alleviatio of the chronic illness that threatens his life…?


As someone who could potentially derive great benefit from embryo research, I find it distressing to read that some… are against it.


I’m disgusted with those who are opposing further embyro research. Why? If your wife was, like mine, suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, you would think very differently on this matter, as any timy glimmer of hope would be a godly thing.

Although many scientists will point to the possible benefits of research and thus would employ teleological arguments, ordinarily such expectations would be based only on the objective beliefs that a) science is the best way to proceed, and b) that it has a proven track record.

This type of argument though is more strongly found in non-scientific supporters, those who stand to gain from any medical benefits procured by the research.

The argument for scientific method. This argument similar to the first argument is Objective and Deontological in nature, and indeed much like the argument from scientific progress it argues that the scientific method provides the best means for observing and understanding the world, and thus for producing results to encountered problems. But this type of argument can proceed beyond scientific practise into a form of scientism or scientific chauvenism, and can argue that its methods alone are the benchmark by which it should be judged and not alternative standards i.e. morality, religion, pseudoscience etc.

This type of arguing, generally found outside of the proffessional scientist class, has a tendency to focus not on the benefits or merits of its methods, aims, or results, but on the failings or inadequacies of its alternatives. Thus two types of logical fallacy tend to creep into these arguments, the argumentum ad hominem and the argument from authority. The best way in which to describe the approach of these arguments is to use a sporting cliche “playing the man, not the ball” in other words arguing on grounds other than the facts of the matter. Some examples are:

We oppose the Roman Catholic Church’s narrow minded, dogmatic objection


our religious leaders are attempting to destroy advances in medical science


I object to its disingenous propaganda and the sinister pressure it’s applying to elected politicians… If the Cardinals and bishops dont like living in a liberal, tolerant, progressive state, they should relocate to one where the prevailing views are more attuned to theirs…

must not impose a restriction on the majority of people who do not agree with their beliefs.

Conclusion on the arguments for

The first argument, that scientific research should be permitted despite external evalutaions, because all science adds to the pool of human knowledge and contributes to our progress, is a self-justifying argument. It makes sense from within the scientific language game, for it defines itself as rational and progressive. The only problem is that terms and concepts such as progress do not necessarily equate with truth or goodness. All three terms are intepreted and valued in different ways in different contexts. Does an increase in knowledge equate with progress or equate with goodness, and how do we judge if this is so?

The second argument the teleological one seems to me the most sensible – in terms of its not being self-referential or overtly chauvenistic. Its premise is simple, judge us by our deeds. Thus it can argue that certain scientific research is morally justifiable on account of its long-term or eventual benefits. There are however two caveats to this type of argument. i) consequentialist arguments assume that we can know what the consequences will be – can we be certain that the ends indeed justify the means – what if the research ultimately fails to find any cure? ii) Also such argumentation could be used to justify any amount of atrocious behaviour (depending on your perspective), i.e. the atomic bomb: the death of hundreds of thousands of “innocent” civilian lives at Hiroshima and Nagasaki ultimately hastened the end of the war and thus it is assumed fewer military casualties. Could one not from this example justify pre-emptive military strikes against any percieved threat?

The second part of the second argument, the personalist one, is for me a very understandable approach. The gung ho mentality of “he who dares wins” is particularly resonant. Nobody particularly likes illness or suffering least of all if the subject of that illness or suffering is the self or a close or loved one. But further to this general dislike of illness and suffering, it becomes particularly unpalatable when we discover that there is nothing medical science can do about it. Thus when research proposals dangle tantalizingly on a stick above those who are desperate and provides them with hope then a personalist and emotivist motivation for supporting those research proposals are understandable. But there are certain issues that need to be discussed – a personalist approach could be viewed by some as a selfish one (albeit understandable) and one may be inclined to ask about proportionality and perspective. There is also the concern that in the light of personalist motivations the objectivity of that person may be compromised – if we cannot be certain of the success of a research project is it wise to invest so much emotive hope in it or to arouse such emotive expectations for it? Finally there is the argument that in philosophical and rational debate there is no place for emotivist arguments whatsoever – is a consequentialist appeal about possible benefits an appropriate method of discussion?

Finally the third argument for is that from the scientific method. This tends to be more rhetorical and chauvenistic than the other arguments, and has a danger of descending into any number of logical fallacies. But if one was arguing on the grounds of proven track records why shouldnt one argue from authority? Or if one was absolutely convinced that the origins of the fault of the opposition view lay in the persons or motives behind that view (in this case the perception that the Church’s authority is being challenged) why shouldn’t these contextual pieces of information be presented?

Types of Argument Against

I am going to characterise the arguments against the HFE as being Catholic. By this I do not mean that they are solely Roman Catholic or exclusively religious, but that they are universal (the greek word being catholicos). And by universal I mean that most of the arguments against are very similar. The main one is the argument from the right of the unborn child. This argument takes two explicit forms firstly the cryto-religious view that has recourse either to notions of the soul, or to a view of life starting at conception. This form of argument is mostly Deontological and Objective, it argues that the embryo is a human being and has all the dignity and expectation of rights that any other human being (post-natal) has, including the right to life. That right to life – which in the religious language game is either a natural right or a right that is bestowed by God – is an absolute right, thus the opposition to the HFE bill is an opposition to the means irrespective of the ends. Thus a typicl expression of this view from the correspondances goes:

The creation of animal/human hybrids would be highly immoral and unethical. Even if a case could be proved that such a hybrid creatio had resulted in cures for diseases, this could never be justified since human lives should never be sacrificed.

Thus in this type of argument the operative view is that the embryo is a human being in essence if not wholly recognisably so in substance.

The second type of argument against HFE is curious insofar as it seems to straddle both Deontological and Teoleological categories. This is commonly known as the argument from potential. In classical embyro research and abortion dilemmas it establishes the objective rule that it is wrong to kill a human embryo because it has the potential to become a fully rights-laden human being. Furthermore some emotivist variations of this argument beg the question, what sort of a potential human being are we aborting – could it have become the scientist to discover the cure to “x”? This type of argument naturally also then has a sort of Consequentialist flavour to it, although it is more open ended than most consequentialist arguments as there is little way of knowing what type of a person the human embryo will become (in terms of personality and achievements to mankind) – indeed the same argument could be used bizarelly to justify abortion ‘just imagine what sort of monster we might be allowing to be born?’

With regards the HFE bill though this second type of argument is emerging a strongly rhetorical one. On the one hand there are those accusations that the research is of “Frankenstein” proportions. There are the accusations (false the scientists claim) that there will be half-human half-animal hybrid or chimeras created. But a further example of a Consequentialist-type argument is the speculation known as the slippery slope effect. What some critics of the bill ask about the possibility that one day scientists will allow or attempt to let the hybrid embryo go full term?

Conclusion on the arguments against

Just as with the arguments for, the arguments against tend to be deeply entrenched and reliant upon additional underlying values. In this case quite often the arguments rely upon a view of what constitutes a human being, or a view on when life begins. It is not an exclusively religious point of view either relying upon metaphysical notions such as the soul. For example there is an opinion described as longitudinal form that argues that “life” is not easily categorised into development stages – at least not so easily as to be able to take any stage out of context. Rather this view argues one must consider life as an organic continuum, and realise that the stages such as blastocyst, embryo, baby, prebubescent, adolescent, adult, geriatric etc. can only be observed in isolation and out of context. One does not step out of one developmental stage and then enter another, so much as morph from one to another. This argument proposes that the unborn child then as part of this longitudinal continuum should if any human is to be said to have rights, have them also from the moment of conception.

There is interestingly an absence of personalist arguments against the HFE legislation. This is not to say that such arguments do not exist, but that more often than not they would be considered less relevant than personalist arguments for. An example would be those who have lost children in the womb by miscarriage or abortion, or those who are unable to have children who feel that the harvesting and termination of so many emrbyo’s is wasteful.

Overall Conclusion the clash between language games

In conclusion I would just like to make some final observational statements. It should from the above analysis be fairly clear that in arguments for and against there is both a comparitive element of self-justification and a variety of differing emphases on means and ends – not to mention types of argument employed.

But it is this element of comparitive self-justification that interests me the most for it seems to confirm for me a theory of cognitive relativism (this is an observational theory and has no relation to moral relativism). The form of cognitive relatvism that it seems to fit best is in my opinion an ethical version of language games theory.

In this hypotheses, there is an action or a proposition with certain aims and methods – in our case embryo research. In order to enable these actions legislation must be passed, and accordingly a debate about the merits or lack thereof of the proposed action must be held. In such a situation it is feasible that everybody involved in the debate may agree that the proposed actions are justifiable and the consensus may be that it is the right thing to do. Thus the proposed action is approved of and is described in terms of moral or ethical approval. It is even possible that such approval can then be transformed into an ethical standard, held up as an example of the right that should be emulated, and this in turn can then transform into ethical propositions i.e. ought statements.

But there are also circumstances (as here) where there is neither agreement nor any reasonable grounds to believe that consensus may be reached. It appears that those who are for and those who are against the proposed action (HFE bill) are so well-set in their beliefs that what we have may be described as an ethical dilemma.

What is characteristic is that both sides will self-referentially i.e. for their own reasons and motives adjudge themselves to be holding the right or morally correct position. But furthermore they will also define their righteousness by comparison with the opposite view which will be described and characterised as everything that the right is not.

Interestingly though for our analysis it must be said that in this case (as in so many seriously contrasting either/or cases) an ethical dilemma is more of a clash of mutually incoherent forms of life (worldviews).

The Church is putting the ‘interests’ of clumps of cells, with no consiousness, brain or organs, ahead of human beings who are sentient and suffering…

That comment by a support of the bill neatly sums up the irreconciliable difference between the two forms of life that clash and correspond to the for and against arguments in the HFE bill. Those who support the bill either de-emphasize or outright deny the humanity of the embryo, whereas those against the bill see the embryo as fully human in essence and potential. Those who support the bill deny or limit the claims of the embryo to any rights when compared to the fully formed adult, those against the bill believe those rights to be applicable either by necessity or by extension.

Both the fors and the against use strongly deontological and objective arguments, or if not manifest in the arguments themselves these tendencies can be found in the underlying assumptions of both be it the materialist view of the merits of scientific method and its sole claim to progress, or the view that life begins at conception.

Both the fors and against use broadly consequentialist views and both suffer from the same potential uncertainties that plague such arguments. The potentiality of an embyro is undermined by the large uncertainty that it would ever attach to the wall of the womb, develop full-term, live long after birth etc. Similarly for all the hope and expectation attached to the proposed research there is no copperfastened guaruntee that it will suceed, or that any of the possible cures posited will be attained.

In a descriptive overview such as this it would be inappropriate to make value-laden judgements and promote one argument over another. Thus I will avoid any prescriptive propositions concerning the actual case itself. But three things do occur to me that are worthy of note.

1- the alienating danger of personalist and emotivist arguments – In the HFE scenario much is at stake for its supporters and its detractors not least in terms of credibility, but most of all in terms of results. Personalist and emotivist arguments though I would not exclude them as irrational or less-rational than other detached arguments are nonetheless inflammatory and potentially dangerous rhetorical tools. It is not in the interests of humanity as a whole for society to fragment and to alienate groups of each other on account of mutually incompatible or incoherent beliefs. To falsely characterise research scientists as evil-doers hell bent on creating monsters or to attach blame to the religious opponents of such research as the cause of much unneccessary suffering -particularly when the outcome is always less then certain – is to benefit nobody. Thus in the field of rational ethical debate a certain clinical detachment would be advisable as would be the self-regulatory limitation of rhetoric for political reasons masquerading as philosophical debate.

2- A step-back from the cauldron of debate ought to be a necessary part of clinical detachment, and the recent arguments concerning the language used to describe animal/human hybrids needs to be reviewed. As I mentioned in an earlier post of mine, it needs be noticed that the terms of the legislation and thus attacks against the terms of the legislation should not be interpreted as attacks against the research proposal and the researchers themselves even though the moral position may not be altogether different. Thus although the proposal of the researchers may be to use the husk of an animal egg as a receptacle for a human nucleus (with an animal to human ration of 1:99 if not greater) the wording of the legislation itself is vague enough that the ‘spectre’ of a 50/50 animal/human hybrid is sufficient enough in the minds of its opponents to warrant mentionand criticism. Thus the proposed law and not the proposed research is not being attacked.

3- Thus the relative strengths and weaknesses of the consequentialist argument must be mutually appreciated. For although the supporters of the HFE bill are strongly critical of the slippery-slope style argument that condemns the current research proposals on the basis of its potential extreme manifestations i.e. the possibility that one day a 50/50 chimera may be created and allowed to develop full-term – the supporters of the HFE bill are also reliant upon an inverse formula of the slippery-slope argument (what I would call the idealised mountain-top) by having constant recourse to the possible (as opposed probable which has less rhetorical strength) benefits such research could accrue.

However although this style of argument may be valid – no matter how irritating the rhetoric employed, once more clinical detachment is advisable. To condemn the current research scientists and their proposals on account of future faults is unfair, unscientific, obscurantist and an example of “playing the man not the ball” – but it is similarly mistaken to expect that such a slippery slope argument not be employed when it would be unfair to demand of these particular research scientists to make promises on behalf of all subsequent scientists and research projects in the future. Although 50/50 human animal chimeras are not the desired telos of this research it is valid to be concerned by virtue of procedural deterioration that one day this may be the desired telos. A procedural deterioration being where a boundary or a taboo has been crossed further encroachments inevitably entail as the shocking effect recedes.

It is hard as a cognitive relativist at times not to despair that mutual incoherence will ever be overcome and to believe that people/groups will always shout past each other on account of too strongly held underlying views. But it is somewhat conciliatory to believe and hope that we should have the freedom to disagree and debate from our own language game/forms of life perspectives in these ways.

An aphorism on morality

Posted by on March 20th, 2008

Friedrich Nietzsche begged us to look beyond the traditional dichotomy and prejudice of good and evil. Our traditional means of viewing the world involve arbitrary splits; creating them and us.

What we do in dreams we also do when we are awake: we invent and fabricate the person with whom we associate – and immediately forget we have done so. aphorism 138

Out of a desire for moral coherence and convenience we retrospectively and proactively justify our subjective truths my making them into universals.

Our vanity would have just that which we do best count as that which is hardest for us. The origin of many a morality. aphorism 143

In short, systems of morals are only a sign-language of the emotions. aphorism 187

And so he is led to say:

What is done out of love always takes place beyond good and evil. aphorism 153

The medieval German mystic Meister Eckhart similarly taught that the just man does just deeds, but the doing of just deeds does not make a just man.

Whoever loves justice remains so fully established in it that what he loves becomes his own essence. Justi vivent in aeturnum

The just man does not seek support elsewhere, he does not let his acts be determined by external precepts. When you conform with exterior laws, your acts are merely legal. The just man who acts out of intimate assimilation with Justice “is”.

The path, Meister Eckhart preaches, is detachment, or releasement from distinctions, names, oppositions.

Whatever bears a name can be juxtaposed or be compared with something that has another name.

Indeed, before there were creatures, God was not yet God, but he was what he was. But when creatures came to be and recieved their created being, then God was no longer God in himself, rather he was God in the creatures…

Thus we say that man must be so poor that he is not and has no place wherein God could act. Where man still preserves some place in himself, he preserves distinction. This iswhy I pray God to rid me of God, for my essential being is above God insofar as we comprehend God as the principle of creatures. Blessed are the Poor

Thus Eckhart asks us to live life without a why, to go beyond good and evil, beyond the distinctions of creator and created.

If you seek God for the sake of a foundation, Eckhart says, if you look for God even for the sake of God himself then ‘you behave as though you transformed God into a candle in order to find something with it; and when one has found what one looks for one throws away the candle’ Reiner Schurmann quoting Eckhart’s Omne datum Optimum.

So Nietzsche and Eckhart in terms of a moral discourse both point towards detachment or releasement, the living without a why, the going beyond good and evil, the loss of the prejudices of Binary Opposition.

Those who seek something with their works, those who act for a why, are serfs and mercenaries. Eckhart, Justus in perpetuam vivet.

It is interesting to note that this wisdom of letting-be is to be found across the continents and the ages, in the context of Nietzsche’s post-christian paradigm, Eckharts via negativa, and also in the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu’s book of the way. The second ideogram of the Tao is remerkable in its resemblance both to the teachings of the above masters and the analysis of Jacques Derrida and the Post-Structuralists.

When people see some things as beautiful, other things become ugly. When people see some things as good, other things become bad.

Being and non-being create each other. Difficult and easy support each other. Long and short define each other. High and low depend on each other. Before and after follow each other.

Therefore the Master acts without doing anything and teaches without saying anything. Things arise and he lets them come; things disappear and he lets them go. He has but doesn’t posess, acts but doesn’t expect. When his work is done, he forgets it. That is why it lasts forever. Tao Te Ching ~ 2

More thoughts on Alien Philosophy

Posted by on March 2nd, 2008

Some time ago I posted on extraterrestrial philosophy, these were mere speculations as to how other ‘cultures’ and lifeforms may view themselves, the universe and its great questions.

In the introduction to a book I’m reading at the moment came a nice little passage that sets the scene for both existential and postmodern thought.

In a passage that has always remained with me, the young Friedrich Nietzsche envisaged the following scene. Once upon a time, on a little star in a distant corner of the universe, clever little animals invented for themselves proud words, like truth and goodness. But soon enough the little star cooled, and the little animals had to die and with them their proud words. But the universe, never missing a step, drew another breath and moved on, dancing to its cosmic dance across endless skies. – Philosophy & Theology by John Caputo

I dont instantly recognise the words of Nietzsche here and where they came from (perhaps AC-1 can be of some help), but the influence of Nietzsche is unimistakeable.

Leaving aside any indepth argument or discussion on this matter, the following thoughts occured to me.

Quite clearly the first target of Nietzsche here is the notions of Objective morality and truth – that something is absolutely always the case at all times and in all places. Secondly (as is the case with Nietzsche) it is that the whole basis of such speculation, including specifically terminological distinctions such as good or bad, true or false, are quite subjective human inventions.

A petty aside may ask, isnt such speculation upon the speculation an equally subjective invention? Such a thought could lead to a reductio ad absurdum or perhaps even to claim that the whole idea is self-refuting. But I wont get into that maze for now!

With regards then Alien Philosophy it occured to me that this analysis of the inventiveness, not to say arbitrariness of human moral and epistemic speculation is rather important. Lets assume there is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe and that much like us they are interested in philosophical speculation. Lets also assume that much like us they have not (despite the possible existence of many Wittgenstein types) have resolved all the questions that philosophy raises.  Would they have what Derrida called binary opposites built in to our thoughts like Good/Bad, True/False and so on? Would they similarly have a notion of objectivity, or would they have their own ‘antichrist’ (as Nietzsche famously labelled himself) debunking the lofty and idealistic claims to objectivity of thought?

And finally in an open-ended and therefore irritating question, lets say we discovered countless extraterrestrial cultures all of whom had similar philosophical speculations and all of whom struggled with the idea of objectivity… what would it take to convince a Nietzcshe that such an objectivity existed?

If we encountered a large number of alien cultures that believed in objective moral values and truths, would – by virtue of their number and perhaps rhetoric – we be consoled into accepting objectivism because they too could believe in it? Or would we be always searching for the exception to the rule – which lets face it when confronted with a vast expanding universe and a near infinite number of possibilities (not to mention parallel and multiverse possibilities) – could provide us with the exception we seek?

Or is it just as likely that even if all these alien cultures believed in objectivity we would just be compelled to extend Nietzsches analysis to all of them – that the “delusion” could be bigger than we all imagined?

I provide no answers. And find but some consolation in the Indian philosopher Samsara’s principle that “what seems, could be” – as unconvinced of objectivity (as opposed to subjectivity) I may be can I really conclusively refute it for now and for all times?

Renaissance musings

Posted by on March 1st, 2008

It wasnt until the 19th century and the post-enlightenment proliferation of scholarly acedemic and reductionist study of varying topics that we find the “renaissance” being defined and described.

To this day if one were to conduct a ‘vox pops’ survey on the streets quite probably the majority of people when asked about what the Renaissance was, would (if they had any knowledge of it) refer to some vague notion of it being European, humanist, and progressive.  And those with perhaps a greater awareness of socio-cultural history would probably be able to put a place and time to the term – saying probably Italy + 15th Century = Renaissance.

Indeed the term ‘Renaissance’ generally evokes the image of Italian culture. architecture and characters of that period, Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Gallileo etc. For me personally I always have visions of the Italian City-states, and the flowering of republican democracy.

But of course the Renaissance was much more than just that. It was a time of political and religious upheaval, it saw the rebirth of humanistic philosophy. The dawn of the modern scientific age took place alongside the birth of modern european imperialism, capitalism and all its ‘darker’ relations such as slavery, colonialism, the exploitation of resources.

But funnily enough the Renaissance is a myth, insofar as it wasnt a single cultural, or geographical (or for that matter historically) specific event. Of course we could describe culture (particularly european) as undergoing a seismic shift in capability and ambition, that is not deniable. But what is questionable is the story of what the Renaissance was, the myth and interestingly enough as I referred to at the beginning, the idea of the Renaissance as a period of european cultural, political and scientific flourishing was only conceived of in the 19th century.

Changes in perspective means that we are now questioning the recieved knowledge of the renaissance (or its own account of itself). An example of postmodern historical deconstruction (that has in my opinion been valuable).

There are two things that interest me and perhaps prompted me to post on this. The first was the view that a culture has of itself (and how this fluctuates according to variations in accepted values). The second was the two-way global scale of the renaissance, obviously the European domination of the world, but also the non-european catalysts for this change in capablity and ambition.

I was prompted to muse on the first of these themes by the 19th century Swiss academic Jacob Burckhardt who in 1860 published The Civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy. In this seminal work he argued that the peculiarities of the Italian political environment in the late 1500’s led to the creation of a specifically modern individuality. “Man became a spiritual individual” with the revival of classical antiquity, the greater range of explorers and an increasing unease with organised religion. This was compared critically with the lack of individual awareness that Burckhardt defined as characteristic of the middle ages where:-

Man was conscious of himself only as a member of a race, people, party, family or corporation.

In other words pre-15th century man was a tribal and herd-like animal without any powerful sense of personal identity.

What is interesting from the postmodern perspective is that a deeper study of Burckhardt or his French contemporary Jules Michelet (who drew similar conclusions) is that they were ideologically motivated individuals. Their respective historical metanarratives were written as both an affirmation of enlightenment ideals and as a defence against the collapse of certain of its principles (for example the re-establishment of the monarchy in France and the collapse of the republic). In other words, their account of the Renaissance (of what it was) and their account of its importance relied more upon their interpretation of historical facts presented as a justification for their political, philosophical and religious ideals for the 19th century. Consequently until comparitively recently their “version” of the Renaissance has been the iconic one familiar to us all, but it would seem is also less than accurate.

An interesting aside, as an existentialist reading the above quote of Berckhardts describing Medieval culture, one wonders whether anything much has changed? How many people in the present day define themselves in accordance with the expectations or demands of others? (Refer to AC-1’s post on advertising for some examples of modern herd mentality).

Finally the second point raises some interesting musings. The Renaissance as a non-specific period of cultural flourishing was indebted to external non-modern and non-european influences. There are too many to list them all, so just two shall suffice for now.

Schools and the idea that education should be available for all had their origins in renaissance humanist thinking. But the motivation wasn’t (as we would suppose) to broaden the mind of the individual in order to question themselves and society around them – although this was a desired aim. The reality was learning by rote and vocational based education preparing students for employment – little more than worker-mould factories!

A different example (and one that endlessly fascinates me) that had widespread ramifications for the development of science and economics was the introduction of Hindu-Arabic numerals, the discovery or appropriation of the “zero” and the rise of modern mathematics.

In brief, it was a Pisan merchant Leonardo Pisan, who is known to the world as Fibonacci who in the 13th century used his experience of the Arabic method of reckoning profit and loss in the marketplace, who introduced numerals as we know them. Fibonacci explained the use of the numerals from 0 to 9, the use of the decomal point and their application to practical commercial problems. He also can be credited (bizarre as it may seem to us now) with the introduction of various calculating functions such as + addition, – subtraction and x multiplication into the european arithmetic vocabulary (functions previously unknown).

The arabic commercial practise that Fibonacci borrowed from itself came from a cultural flowering and “Renaissance” that took place in the Islamic east. Indeed the mathematical term “algebra” and its constituent principles are directly taken from Arabic al-jabru (meaning restoration). Furthermore in and around 825AD a Persian astronomer known as Abu Ja’far Mohammed ibn Musa al-Khowarismi wrote a book which included the rules of arithemtic for the decimal positional number system, called ‘Kitab al jabr w’al-muqabala‘ (‘Rules of Restoration and Reduction’). This astronomers name, when Latinized is given to the basis for the further study of one of modern maths cornerstones: the algorithm.

Religion in Politics: an ethical framework

Posted by on February 4th, 2008

Some of our recent dialogs have concerned how and to what extent religious ‘involvement’ in politics is appropriate (if at all). Both of us agree that as a libertarian ideal everyone has a free voice and ‘right’ to participate in the democratic process – even if their opinions are objectionable. I have tended to argue at times that institutions as collective lobby groups also have the right to participate, thus something like the ‘Church’ can be seen in a similar light to a political party. But problems arise from this point of view. At what stage does ‘involvement’ i.e. advancing a ‘right to life’ thesis become ‘interference’ i.e. seeking to criminalize an activity by enforcing one moral view upon others.

In this light ethicist Charles Curran once promoted a strategy to guide various religious groupings towards an ethical and pluralist participation within democracy – that entitles them to voice their opinions without enforcing them. It is worth noting he wrote at length in the context of this in the U.S. where religion and politics are closely entwined – but I think his framework is applicable everywhere.

First of all there are three protagonists to consider. The Church as an institution, religious interest groups, and the individual person. Clearly the way each protagonist speaks and influences politics is very different. Anyway these are thr four principles that Curran outlines as the most important ways for religious opinions to be presented to society.

1) Metanoia – Change of Heart. If any social and political change is ever to be possible on any issue then of fundamental concern is personalism. A change of heart in the individual must precede meaningful social change. So a meaningful dialogue needs to be established with the individual. This of course is a two way street, engage in a case-by-case study of the issues, learn from those whose opinion or approach to an issue differs, respect disagreements or alternative views. Most importantly of all recognise the ethical inadequacy of universal objective prescriptive rules or descriptive analysis.

2) Education. By itself education is inadequate – for social problems as percieved by one persepctive as such go deeper than mere ignorance of the issues. But as part of a wider strategy education can be useful.

3) Compassionate action for those who are victims. In order to precipitate greater social change it is never enough to simply talk, religious people as an institution, an interest group or as individuals need to act upon their principles both to demonstrate the valdity of their approach but also to establish it as a viable alternative. Thus for example in the U.S. charitable hospitals that require no medical insurance as condition of treatment. Or in the UK the Cardinal Winning Pro-life initiative that offers material and spiritual support through crisis pregnancies and after birth, making pro-life pro-choice as well by making the choice a viable option (without judging those who eventually opt for abortion).

4) Institutional action. Aside from practising what they preach religious groups if they want to change social attitudes on an issue need to be involved in the political process. The best way to do this isnt by objective rule making or critical analysis (preaching) but by advocating for those without advocates. Being a “voice” for those without a mouthpiece.

As a holistic approach all of this should seem reasonable even to the non-religious. It is simply an ethical way to engage with society and promote social change. Although people may disagree with the ‘message’ they should hopefully agree with the liberty to promote a plurality of values.  But what about specific legislation – should a religious group openly support or promote a law on any given issue – when in practise legislation enforces a singular rather than a plural view?

Curran underlines the difficulty involved in this. Specific issues (about which legislation is usually directed) entertain such a vast number of variable factors that without broad knowledge of all the relevant data it is impossible to know with any certitude what is the appropriate response. Consider abortion, if it were criminalized would it be ethical? Women would still suffer crisis pregnancies but appropriate medical assistance would be forced underground. Poor healthcare would then be an issue, as would the unscrupulous taking advantage of the vulnerable and desperate. Clearly backstreet abortions are undesirable and no matter how much society may change in their attitudes to life-rights there will always be a demand.

So the first principle Curran advocates is the gathering of all the facts. So promoting a religious point of view in a political context requires that the point of view be supported by as much ‘objective’ interdisciplinary data as possible.

Secondly there must be an explicit admission that even with a broad knowledge base on complex ethical issues (in which every situation and every circumstance may vary) absolute certitude and the elimination of error cannot be realistically attained. There is an exception to every rule.

Thirdly is the issue of representation. A religious institution may wield greater collective influence in the political arena than an individual acitivist, but are they ever justified in definitavely speaking as a single entity? There will be those individuals within the institution who dissent – surely they should be entitled to do so and to act as their conscience dictates without fear of reprisal? But equally problematic if an institution maintains silence does this not acquiesce in the status quo?

Again Curran emphasizes that these three principles are combined. A religious institution may be ethically justified in becoming politically active but they must be in possession of all the relevant facts, must acknowledge that no rule can be absolute and that dissent from their point of view is to be expected.

Therefore he says that political involvement should be on different levels. The individual should be as active as they wish. Smaller groups should be engaged in political activism (the Civil Rights movement in America) but institutions should speak out rarely and only on matters of great import. and in a context where they can make a meaningful and constructive contribution to public welfare.

Thus he says the institution should speak out only if it can propose a law that would be equitable (of benefit to all), enforceable and open and malleable to alternative views in a pluralistic society. Thus using the example of abortion he states that any religious involvement in abortion law must provide for all people in all circumstances thus not putting any undue burden on those members of society who are less affluent. It must be enforceable morally and politically – thusthe spectre of illegal back street abortions should provide sufficient reason not to propose a blanket ban. And finally it must be admitted that not everybody within society accepts the idea that abortion is the killing of a human being.

Therefore Curran concludes that on most complex ethical issues a religious institution should clamour for either a moderate law respectful of pluralistic opinions and varying circumstances or for no law at all.  Whilst simultaneously working towards promoting their underlying values i.e. respect for life, and providing viable alternatives for ‘victims’ to choose from i.e. if abortion is required for largely economic reasons provide long-term meaningful economic support.

Finally there obviously must be a balance between providing an ethical discourse to society – being an advocate for the vulnerable and oppressed (speaking out against racism, genocide, torture, war, abortion, euthanasia and so on) – and broadly acceptable legislative action that benefits the common good (free healthcare, racial integration etc.)

Liebniz – God’s chosen world

Posted by on January 26th, 2008

Following on from AC1’s really stimulating post on the search for the “now” I thought i’d post a series of short articles on freedom and determinism within the context of Philosophy of Religion and ‘Eternalism‘.

Eternalism is a theory that models ‘time’ as a dimension in physics with a similar ontology to space. In other words there is no objective flow to time, no past, present and future, in the sense that future events are “aready here”. It is also called “Block Time/Universe” theory. Anyway I can’t do justice to the full theory in this short post so please follow the above link and wiki the term for more information.

This theory has implications for our views of free will, for if the future is “fixed” and unalterable in much the same way as the past is then the events we experience as being within “time” are to a degree determined.

By no means does this theory by itself imply a creator God, or posit any divinity at all. But this theory is compatible with a theistic/deistic eternalism. St Augustine apparently wrote about God being outside of time – a model that would suggest he views the universe as a “Block Universe”.

In this post I want to consider Liebniz’s (1646-1716) view. His view was that God was an eternal and infinite mind who saw and determined everything in the created order and who had chosen to make the world exactly as it is. This is not creationism by the way, the theory could/should fit with an evolutionary mechanism – indeed a theistic “Block Universe” theory would necessitate such a view. Looking at the world as a “whole” Liebniz argues that because one thing may be incompatible with or dependent upon another, a change in any one individual thing ion the world would require that everything else be changed as well. In other words, there may be a number of possible worlds, in which things are quite different from those we find in this one, but within this particular world, everything has to be as it is. In addition, since he believed that it would have been possible for God to have created any sort of world, he argued that – since God chose to create this one – it must be the best possible. There follow two things from this.

1- Within this word we cannot predict exactly what will happen, since we do not have God’s infinite mind and therefore cannot see the way everything works together. Therefore, not knwoing that we are completely determined, we actually experience ourselves as free. In other words (not Leibniz’s) freedom is not knowing all the reasons why you do what you do.

2- A world within which there is human free will, and in which ther can therefore be the evil and suffering that come from its misuse, is to be judged better than a world which lacks freedom but is free from its evils. He argued this on the grounds that a perfect God would create the best of all possible worlds.

But notive here that there is still a great difference between what is experienced (freedom) and what is actually the case (a world totally determined by the mind of God). How can these be related in such a way that the one does no undermind the other? Kant attempts to respond to this and I will save this for another post.

Thanks to Mel Thompson for the above ideas, extracted and adapted from his book “Religion and Science”.

Some things strike me about Liebniz’s form of eternalism/block universe theory. Particularly a radical re-evaluation of the problem of evil is required. God’s good is not our good. Or more accurately human concepts of good and evil are subjective and relative notions that arise from our being within space-time and our inabiity to process all the facts (all in the infinite sense).

It is also interesting to note that Leibniz influenced Einstein. He suggested (independent of Newtonian calculus) that “an object’s ability to do work was proportional to the square of its speed, rather than its speed alone” thus of course squaring an objects speed was a vital part of Einsteins thinking.

Some concluding thoughts on Feyerabend

Posted by on January 18th, 2008

One of Feyerabend’s themes is that there is no common structure to the sciences; individuals may assert that there is, but an analysis of the history of science shows how impressively ad hoc the development of science has been. This is not exploited as a criticism of science, per se, but rather identified as a strength: it argues against placing restrictions and limits on the spirit of open inquiry that underlies science:

His relativistic “meta-methodology” was summarized thus:

“(A) the way in which scientific problems are attacked and solved depends on the circumstances in which they arise, the (formal, experimental, ideological) means available at the time and the wishes of those dealing with them. There are no lasting boundary conditions of scientific research.

(B) the way in which problems of society and the interactions of cultures are attacked and solved also depends on the circumstances in which they arise, the means available at the time and the wishes of those dealing with them. There are no lasting boundary conditions of human action.

Thus he criticises the view:

“(C) that science and humanity must conform to conditions that can be determined independently of personal wishes and cultural circumstances.”

And also the assumption:

“(D) that it is possible to solve problems from afar, without participating in the activities of the people concerned.

Finally, Feyerabend pointedly distinguishes between abstract traditions and historical traditions:

“Historical traditions cannot be understood from afar. Their assumptions, their possibilities, the (often unconscious) wishes of their bearers can be found only by immersion, i.e. one must live the life one wants to change. Neither (C) nor (D) apply to historical traditions… my main objections against intellectual solutions of social problems is that they start from a narrow cultural background, ascribe universal validity to it and use power to impose it on others. Is it surprising that I want to have nothing to do with such ratiofascistic dreams? Helping people does not mean kicking them around until they end up in someone else’s paradise, helping people means trying to introduce change as a friend, as a person, that is, who can identify with their wisdom as well as with their follies and who is sufficiently mature to let the latter prevail: an abstract discussion of the lives of people I do not know and with whose situation I am not familiar is not only a waste of time, it is also inhumane and impertinent.


I say that Auschwitz is an extreme manifestation of an attitude that still thrives in our midst. It shows itself in the treatment of minorities in industrial democracies; in education… which most of the time consists in turning wonderful young people into colourless and self-righteous copies of their teachers… it shows itself in the killing of nature and of ‘primitive’ cultures with never a thought spent on those thus deprived of meaning for their lives; in the colossal conceit of our intellectuals, their belief that they know precisely what humanity needs and their relentless efforts to recreate people in their own, sorry image… in the lack of feeling of many so-called searchers for truth who systematically torture animals, study their discomfort and receive prizes for their cruelty.

As far as I am concerned there exists no difference whatsoever between the henchmen of Auschwitz and these ‘benefactors of mankind’ – life is misused for special purposes in both cases. The problem is the growing disregard from spiritual values and their replacement by a crude but ‘scientific’ materialism, occasionally even called humanism: man (i.e. humans as trained by their experts) can solve all problems – they do not need any trust in and any assistance from other agencies. How can I take a person seriously who bemoans distant crimes but praises the criminals in his own neighbourhood? And how cna I decide a case from afar after seeing that reality is richer than even the most wonderful imagination.”

From the concluding chapter of Farewell to Reason.