Monday, March 14, 2016



Notes on Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time

D. R. Khashaba


You will think me mad to comment on Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. I may be mad but I hope I am not such an imbecile as to comment on Hawking’s science. Yet such a book will contain implicit or explicit, conscious or unconscious, philosophical and metaphysical assumptions. It is with these that I am concerned. I will not be so much commenting as offering marginal reflections. It may be that my being an outsider to science helps me see things that scientists find it difficult to perceive from within their special universe of thought. Initially I expected my comments to focus on Chapter 8, “The Origin and Fate of the Universe”, and the concluding chapter but then I found that I had on my hands more than I had anticipated.

Intelligent non-scientists dread exposing themselves to ridicule if they point out the flaws in advanced scientific thinking. The ridicule would be in place if the non-scientist tried to criticize scientific work from within. But in discussing the possibilities and the limitations of knowledge, both the scientist and the intelligent non-scientist are on common ground. And someone has to take the risk. For myself I have nothing to lose if I am ridiculed, for I am in any case a nonentity. In making a detailed comment on a particular point I may make a howler and reveal my ignorance, but on general issues I do not concede that I am at a disadvantage.

Some time ago I made some comments (included in Plato’s Universe of Discourse, 2015) on parts of Roger Penrose’s Road to Reality. I did not know then of Penrose’s and Hawking’s collaboration. My approach to Penrose there was different from my approach to Hawking in the present paper. Hawking touches on metaphysical questions marginally and does not work the metaphysics into the scientific theory. Penrose on the other hand delves into metaphysics with full intent and, seduced by a misconceived Platonism, speaks boldly of Reality. I confined my examination to the openly metaphysical parts of Penrose’s book.

Following an inveterate habit of mine I write my comments as I read on. This method has serious pitfalls. In the revision some of the blunders and misunderstandings may be removed but there remain rough edges and unsmoothed dents.

I am using the electronic edition, 2001, updated, incorporating additional material and a new chapter on wormholes. All citations refer to the PDF pages of the electronic edition.


In his foreword to the electronic edition Hawking says that however it be with the possibility “of the unification of the laws of science”, the most important point remains “that the universe is governed by a set of rational laws that we can discover and understand” (p. 2). I prefer to say that the universe embodies regularities that we can represent as ‘laws’. I wish that scientists would drop the metaphor of ‘laws that govern’ the universe: it can lead to confused and erroneous thinking. In the paper on Penrose this was a major issue.

Hawking speaks of “fluctuations (that) are the finger-prints of creation” (p. 2). Again ‘creation’ is another notion that has no rightful place in scientific thinking. Philosophically I say that ultimate reality is creative. That is a different matter and it is of no relevance to science. But creation out of nothing and by nothing is an utter absurdity. Scientists should realize that speaking of an ultimate origin of the universe is meaningless blabber or at best very loose talk. Our actual particular cosmos may have started with a bang or grew out of a god particle, but the thing that banged or the god particle must have been there in the first place. An absolutely ultimate origin doesn’t fit into the methodology of science. The objectivity of science means that science must have something given to work on. Mathematics invented the point and invented the zero, which do not exist, but mathematics works with ideas in the mind, not with things. The propositions of mathematics are, as Kant tells us, synthetic a priori judgments, a thing that is anathema to science – traditional science at any rate – which has to deal with what actually exists and not with the creations of pure reason. It seems to me that modern physics in effacing the boundary between empirical science and mathematics has led itself into a veritable maze. Scientists are developing equations, theories, scenarios, that are strictly unverifiable.


Hawking admits that the most advanced physical theories are just that, unverifiable theories but still hankers after the unattainable. He appears to be aware of the inanity of the question about the beginning of the universe. “Where did the universe come from, and where is it going? Did the universe have a beginning, and if so, what happened before then?” (Ch. 1, p. 3) Yet again and again he reverts to the question and seems not to give up hope of finding the answer.

When we speak of “the beginning of the universe” we should, to avoid slipping into nonsense, clearly define our terms, specify precisely what beginning and what universe we are speaking of. An absolute beginning and the universe in the sense of the metaphysical All are beyond the range of any human knowledge. Wittgenstein was right when he denied the possibility of making any statement about the World, but even Bertrand Russell could not get the point. (See Russell’s own account in My Philosophical Development, p. 86, which I discussed in “The Wittgenstein Enigma”, The Sphinx and the Phienix, 2009.)

Aristotle’s First Cause does not refer to a beginning in time or out of time but to a rational ground for the intelligibility of the mystery of Being. This is beyond the reach of science. Science achieved its astounding successes from the seventeenth century onwards when it limited itself to the empirical. Kant underlined that. Scientists are now forgetting it. They have transgressed beyond the empirical into the metaphysical. This does not extend the scope of science; instead it causes utter confusion.

Then we have the question: “What is the nature of time?” (p. 3) To my mind this is an ill-formed question. It suggests that time is a thing with a nature of its own. There is no such thing as time. You can never observe time or measure time or put time under a microscope, although astrophysicists may fancy that they can observe time through their giant telescopes. Time is a fiction, a myth, that enables us to connect successive impressions, no less a fiction than Newton’s force of gravitation. But the fiction is so useful for science (and for our quotidian doings) that even a Newton could speak of absolute time, which is an absurdity as Leibniz saw. (Tme is discussed more fully below.)

“Will it (time) ever come to an end?” (p. 3) This is a question science cannot answer and is not entitled to pose. Our most ambitious scientists, working at the very edge of the reach of science, are doing (bad) metaphysics and fancy themselves doing science.

An infinite universe is simply unthinkable, unintelligible; Parmenides thought so. Again, a finite universe breeds absurdities. Scientists may find it profitable or convenient to work with this assumption or that, but they cannot assert this or that as a fact. Even if their calculations or predictions work well with either assumption, that is just that; it would be an assumption that works well within a conceptual universe of our own creation. The question about the extent of the universe is nonsensical. Scientists will go on endlessly probing further and further outwards into space or deeper and deeper into whatever they take to be the first element of things, they will only be producing interpretations of — of what? Of other interpretations. Philosophically we create visions, metaphysical and moral, that infuse meaning and value into our experienced (subjective) life. Scientifically we create conceptual patterns that confer intelligibility on our observable (objective) world.

Hawking is well aware of “the pitfalls that you can encounter in talking about infinity” (p. 5). But I don’t think the concept of a finite universe or an expanding universe is less problematic, even if it works well for present-day scientists. After all the idea of an infinite universe worked well for Newton.

Hawking speaks of considering “the finite situation” and then asking “how things change if one adds more stars roughly uniformly distributed outside this region” (p. 3). Are we entitled to ask: How many more? If it is more and more, we are back with infinity, or a pseudo-infinity, an unintelligible neither-nor. Hawking says: “We now know it is impossible to have an infinite static model of the universe” (p. 5). This leads to the suggestion of an expanding or a contracting universe. I do not want to be drawn into the whirlpool of scientific hypotheses, yet it seems that scientists rashly plunge into metaphysical whirlpools. Or it may be that at the frontiers of science, when it deals with the ‘infinitely’ big or the ‘infinitely’ small (general relativity and quantum mechanics) scientists are no longer doing science but indulging in bad metaphysics. Nobody can forbid them to exercise their imagination in bold speculations, but they should openly admit that that is what they are doing.

In a bracketed sentence Hawking writes: “Within the universe, you always explained one event as being caused by some earlier event, but the existence of the universe itself could be explained in this way only if it had some beginning” (p. 6). That’s just it. The world has no beginning. So why all the loose talk about the beginning of the universe or the beginning of time? This is what Wittgenstein censures as a misuse of language.

Marginally: Hawking describes Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason as “very obscure”. (p. 6) I’m amused. If Stephen Hawking finds the Critique obscure, that serves Immanuel Kant right! It confirms what I have repeatedly said, that Kant harmed himself by housing his profound and fundamental insights in his curious architectonic scaffolding.

Hawking misrepresents Kant’s argument in the Antinomies and is completely mistaken in speaking of Kant’s “unspoken assumption that time continues back forever”. (p. 6) This ‘unspoken assumption’ may have been implied in the arguments advanced for either of the opposed theses. That was the ground for Kant’s rejection of both theses. Kant explicitly says that time is a mode of the understanding, something that the mind projects, a form in which the mind clothes the experiential content. As such how could it ‘extend back forever’? In fact, the long digression on creation in Ch. 1 (p. 6) is quite pointless. What does a book of physics have to do with Genesis and Augustine’s City of God? If anything, this indicates that Hawking does not see that scientific and metaphysical questions are completely separate as Socrates saw and asserted.

As if answering what I have been saying above, Hawking writes:

“When most people believed in an essentially static and unchanging universe, the question of whether or not it had a beginning was really one of metaphysics or theology. … But in 1929, Edwin Hubble made the landmark observation that wherever you look, distant galaxies are moving rapidly away from us. In other words, the universe is expanding. This means that at earlier times objects would have been closer together. In fact, it seemed that there was a time, about ten or twenty thousand million years ago, when they were all at exactly the same place and when, therefore, the density of the universe was infinite. This discovery finally brought the question of the beginning of the universe into the realm of science” (p. 7).

As I see it, this does not mend matters. The confusion and the loose language are still there. The metaphysical question remains metaphysical. (And lest anyone should think I am alleging that metaphysics can answer the question, let me assure you I maintain metaphysics only gives us myths, fairy tales, that are pleasant and aesthetically satisfying.) That we ‘know’ that the mass of all the galaxies was once concentrated in one place may make it legitimate for scientists to investigate the history of the unfolding of that ancient concentrated mass into galaxies. That may be called the beginning of the present configuration of the stars and whatever other stuff is spread in between the stars. Wittgenstein reduced all metaphysics to bad syntax. The statement that “the question of the beginning of the universe (has been brought) into the realm of science” eminently qualifies for the honour. (Further on we will see that ‘infinite density’ is a ‘singularity’ at which all the laws of science break down and which we have to find our way out of.)

“The eventual goal of science is to provide a single theory that describes the whole universe. However, the approach most scientists actually follow is to separate the problem into two parts. First, there are the laws that tell us how the universe changes with time. … Second, there is the question of the initial state of the universe. Some people feel that science should be concerned with only the first part; they regard the question of the initial situation as a matter for metaphysics or religion. … It …seems …reasonable to suppose that there are also laws governing the initial state” (p.7-8).

I find nothing in this to make me modify anything of what I have said above except that it is now clear that Hawking did not slide unawares into the metaphysical arena but marches there with wide-open eyes. So what is wrong with a scientist having what I call a metaphysical vision? I find in that one minor trap and one highly pernicious error. The minor thing is that scientists are in the habit of reporting actual states of affairs. If they want to venture into metaphysical speculation, they should announce that clearly and should keep their science and their metaphysics unmixed. Now for the serious thing. A. N. Whitehead protested in Science and the Modern World against physicists imposing on us the Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness which depleted our world of colours and smells and textures. I am afraid Hawking’s physiometaphysics will deprive us of much more: a universe, governed by physical laws, presented as what is ultimately ‘real’ and as all-there-is will, to put it most mildly, trivialize all feeling, all moral values, all beauty.

Hawking closes the first chapter by saying: “Today we still yearn to know why we are here and where we came from. Humanity’s deepest desire for knowledge is justification enough for our continuing quest. And our goal is nothing less than a complete description of the universe we live in” (p. 9). I will only add two brief remarks. (1) The “why we are here” can never be disclosed by any objective investigation, any investigation into nature, at any rate if our question is not reduced to: how did it come about that we are here? This latter question is for science to answer but it is quite distinct from the why question. (2) A “complete description of the universe we live in”? Complete? Complete without love, without tears, without smiles? These no science can comprehend, no objective account can encompass.


I said I would not comment on the scientific material, and so I have been reading Chapter 2 meekly huddled at the feet of the master, but I could not let this passing remark pass without a counter remark: “Bishop Berkeley …believed that all material objects and space and time are an illusion” (Ch. 2, p. 11). Berkeley did not believe that ‘material. objects and space and time’ were illusions, any more than Plato did as is too often alleged. For Berkeley it was the notion of a material object that was an illusion. For him all things are ideas in the mind of God, or we may say, in the all-sustaining Mind, the Deus cive Natura of Spinoza. Would Bishop Berkeley condone the blasphemy of making the mind of God hold illusions? For him as for Plato the ideas are real and are the sole standard of reality.

Hawking says: “It is impossible to imagine a four-dimensional space. I personally find it hard enough to visualize three-dimensional space!” (p.14) It is impossible because the idea of four-dimensional space is a fictional combination, a ruse for locating an event. In actual life we live with events and have always been living with events. A smile, a kiss, is a real thing in which place and time are inseparable. We can easily imagine, or experience, a smile or a kiss. We then create the two fictions ‘time’ and ‘space’. These, separately, have served us for so long. Lately we found it useful to make one chimera out of the two, but as there is no such thing we cannot visualize it. This takes us back to what I said about the “complete description of the universe” that scientists promise us and that would leave our world bereft of all reality and all value. Let me put it bluntly: Science cannot give us an account of anything real, really real, Platonically real. Science cam calculate the distance to the farthest galaxy reached by the most sophisticated telescope but can never account for a gush of joy or a pang of pain. With Shakespeare and Goethe and Shelley I say that it is these that are real. All the rest, including our own bodies, are “such stuff as dreams are made on”.

Hawking finds it “hard enough to visualize three-dimensional space”. It’s not hard, it’s impossible. We see and touch and handle three-dimensional things. These make up actual three-dimensional space. Abstract three-dimensional space is an idea in the mind. You can think a triangle but you cannot visualize a triangle that is just a triangle. You can only visualize a particular triangle, right-angled or isosceles or scalene. You cannot visualize three-dimensional space; it has to be a table or a chair or a ball. You cannot visualize space-time but we are all the time experiencing things moving, things growing, things dwindling. These are not in space AND in time; these are in space-time. A bird in flight is not reducible to space and time; it is an instance of duration, a much better term for philosophical purposes than space-time.

Let me venture this whimsical thought. Newton said that bodies attract one another by a mysterious force called gravity. Einstein said that the earth and other planets move as they do because space-time is curved. The long and the short of it is that we can calculate, are happy that our calculations work, but do not know why they work. Gravity and the curved space-time are in a class with the ether with which scientists worked happily for a time.

Let me reiterate. I protest not at the marvellous things that scientists are discovering or visioning but mainly at the loose language which, taken without caution, transmutes their statements from good science into bad metaphysics. Thus Hawking speaks of “a dynamic, expanding universe that seemed to have begun a finite time ago, and that might end at a finite time in the future” (p. 21). This is all right when it is made clear that we are speaking of the present configuration of all the stuff that makes our present cosmos but it becomes nonsense when taken to refer to the All and the Ultimate — words that perhaps have no meaning for scientists, but it does them no harm to say, Well, we do not mean these; we are speaking of a universe that had a beginning that must have had an ante-beginning and that will have an end that will make way for a post-end: we are certainly not speaking of Plato’s Reality or Aristotle’s Being or Spinoza’s Substance.


Hawking says that “Yet so strong was the belief in a static universe that it persisted into the early twentieth century” (Ch. 3, p. 24). I venture to say that Heraclitus would have known that the universe could not be static. When he said that a new sun is born every day I do not think he meant that the setting sun vanishes and a new sun takes its place but that the sun that comes up tomorrow will not be the same sun that is shining today since it is ceaselessly changing internally.

I was tempted to quote at length from the long passage (in Ch. 3) where Hawking explains the breaking down of predictability at the big bang. Suffice it to say that it amounts to saying that all science and all mathematics, in other words all rational thinking, breaks down “at the big bang”. Doesn’t this mean that the question of the ultimate origin or ultimate beginning is strictly outside the range of science? Indeed, as Kant and before him Plato saw, it is outside the reach of reason. Shouldn’t scientists (and philosophers) have the modesty to acknowledge the limits of human knowledge? (Hawking pins his hopes on uniting quantum mechanics and general relativity but, as we shall see, that doesn’t help.)

We are told that the steady state theory” which was propounded in 1948 requires “the continual creation of matter” (p. 28). Creation? Wherefrom or by whom? We have to say we know not. We are back to the need to confess our ignorance. Why shouldn’t that be our final answer? Science can tell us many wonderful things but there are questions which science is not equipped to handle.


We read that “calculations by the British scientists Lord Rayleigh and Sir James Jeans suggested that a hot object, or body, such as a star, must radiate energy at an infinite rate" (Ch. 4, p. 31). Does this not suggest that scientists have reached the point where the further application of their methodology inevitably leads to absurdities? The infinite genie that mathematicians had tethered to their service now turned into a monster that wrecked the magnificent edifices of the physicists.

I do not need the Heisenberg principle or any other scientific principle or discovery to counter Laplace’s contention. All scientific laws are necessarily generalizations that cannot take into account the special variations in a particular situation. Hence all scientific laws are approximations that leave room for variations and deviations. What is more significant is that we experience immediately and indubitably the reality of our creativity in spontaneous deeds and in poetic and artistic creation. This makes the notion of creativity as an ultimate metaphysical principle of reality, to say the least, understandable. I have dealt with this in “Free Will as Creativity” (in The Sphinx and the Phoenix, 2009) and elsewhere and will not expand on it here.

Can we say that in dealing with the very large and the very small science reaches a threshold that it is not permitted to cross? Would that be because the foundational principle of science is to observe and to measure, so that when it gets to where there can be no observation or measurement it can no longer function? Science made its amazing advances from the seventeenth century onwards when it adopted for its credo empiricism and objectivity. Now physicists busy themselves with mathematical theories that can be neither empirical nor objective. Merging physics with mathematics renders physics utterly fruitless. Likewise when mathematics was turned into pure logic, Wittgenstein found it can say nothing substantive.


“Using the wave/particle duality … everything in the universe, including light and gravity, can be described in terms of particles” (Ch. 5, p. 37). That’s just it, everything can be described in terms of this or that, and that’s the whole of human knowledge. Describing anything in terms extraneous to the thing, however useful it may be for specific purposes, falsifies it and can never disclose its essence or true nature.

“A particle of spin 0 is like a dot: it looks the same from every direction” (p. 37). Again loose language and loose imaging. A Euclidean dot does not ‘look’ like anything. If a dot has any looks at all (1) it is not a dot; (2) it will look differently from different directions. I suppose a Leibnizian monad will be reflected differently in different sister monads. Again I must emphasize that I am not criticizing the science behind the expression. I only mean to say that, science having reached the region of the unspeakable and unimaginable, should confine itself to workable equations and should stop pretending that it speaks about the world of actual things — let alone about reality. The only reality is the reality we live.

“We now know that every particle has an antiparticle, with which it can annihilate … There could be whole antiworlds and antipeople made out of antiparticles. However, if you meet your antiself, don’t shake hands! You would both vanish in a great flash of light.” (p. 38). I have nothing to say. I simply could not resist quoting this gem! Let me just add that the word ‘know’ above is a flagrant fraud!


At one time some physicists thought light was composed of particles while others thought it was composed of waves. Now they tell us that both views are right (Ch. 6, p. 44). A fool like myself takes this to mean that both views are wrong. But let us be more generous. Let us say that in certain situations and for certain purposes it is more convenient or more efficient to make our calculations and our predictions on this assumption and in other situations and for other purposes on that. Does this not simply mean that in fact we neither know nor can mentally picture what light is like? Or better still, that light is not like anything? Or even better yet, that we don’t know and can never know? Science creates conceptual patterns, formulated as laws or equations, that luckily match observed phenomena. This agrees with Kant’s assertion that human understanding is confined to the phenomena of nature but is denied access to noumena. Nature is a goddess that deigns to show us aspects of her mien but will not reveal her heart.

I just cannot stomach this blatant contempt of language. ‘Black holes’ are stars, massive, compact, with great gravitational attraction, yet they are so designated “because that is what they are: black voids in space”! (p. 44) As if it is not bad enough to call a compact mass a hole, it is also a black void. Let me repeat, I am not discussing the science behind the words; I am protesting against the corruption of language. Scientists have their experiments, their observations, their calculations to work with: let them not grudge us poor philosophers the only tool we have, words. When we philosophers (and poets) get to the ineffable we make myths. When scientists get to the unspeakable they should be content with making equations.

A ‘big bang singularity’ can only be meaningful in a scenario of transcendent theism. Otherwise we have simply to say that science is not qualified to deal with ultimate beginnings and ultimate ends. If the world goes, phoenix-like, through cycles of annihilation and rebirth, science can only deal with the happenings within the current cycle, but not with the beginning and not with the end.

I am not concerned with the truth or falsehood of the big bang theory or any other theory. I am concerned to affirm that no theory, physical or metaphysical, can give an answer to the question why there is anything at all; this is the ultimate mystery of being. Say that space-time began at or from or by a singularity christened Big Bang. If we are not to throw overboard all reason and all understanding we must put some sense in the terms ‘singularity’ and ‘space-time’. I copy these four definitions from Hawking’s Glossary:

Big bang: The singularity at the beginning of the universe.

Big crunch: The singularity at the end of the universe.

Singularity: A point in space-time at which the space-time curvature becomes infinite.

Space-time: The four-dimensional space whose points are events.

The definition of space-time is not of much help for my present purpose; I venture to take space-time to refer to our present cosmos from its birth to its demise. The definition of a singularity must give us much pause. In the first place I don’t find a definition for the key-term ‘infinity’ in the glossary and I stubbornly maintain that an actual or actualized infinity is sheer nonsense. To actualize infinity is to put an end to what is by definition endless. Then we are told that a singularity is ‘a point in space-time’. A geometrical point has a virtual place but no real place anywhere; a point in space-time is either a fiction or is not a true point. Then we have the infinite curvature: Indeed in Ch. 3 we were explicitly told that “the general theory of relativity … predicts that there is a point in the universe where the theory itself breaks down” (p. 28). We were also told that a singularity is just such a point where our theory and all predictability break down. I must reiterate that I am not questioning the science around all this or behind all this. I am simply insisting that scientists have to moderate their language; they have to admit that however far we go, the absolute beginning and the absolute end are beyond human knowledge, not only practically but in principle. I said above let us take space-time to refer to our present cosmos from bang to crunch: shall we say that the bang was rooted in nothingness and that the crunch will lead to nothingness? Our mind recoils at that. Shall we say there was a world before our world that somehow generated our world? That is fancy. Shall we say the world was created by a God outside the world? Where did God come from? Willy-nilly we have to admit that Being is an ultimate mystery that we cannot crack. That mystery is the concern of metaphysics. Can metaphysics solve the mystery? My answer is a decided No. What use is metaphysics then? Since the mind’s questioning about the mystery cannot be silenced, since the human yearning to belong to the All cannot be stilled, human beings have mythologized from the earliest times and metaphysics continues to mythologize to lull our questionings and our yearnings. Someone may ask: Why shouldn’t scientists do the same? By all means let them do, but they should not call that science. The dogmatism of science is not more palatable than the dogmatism of theology. At many points Hawking shows that he well knows that an absolute beginning and an absolute end are beyond the reach of science. But sometimes his language is unwary or he wavers. More to the point, scientists in general refuse to see this.


Quantum mechanics may help out in the detailed working of the consequences of general relativity but seems to end up with the same gaping void. Thus we read that “when quantum effects were taken into account, it seemed that the mass or energy of the matter would eventually be returned to the rest of the universe, and that the black hole, along with any singularity inside it, would evaporate away and finally disappear” (Ch. 8, p. 61). First we have energy returned to the universe and then the black hole with the mysterious singularity ‘inside it’ evaporate and finally disappear. Evaporate? Does that mean give off something? Disappear? Does that mean all the mass with its singularity have come out as energy? Or does the black hole with its singularity vanish in obedience to a magician’s wand? And what about the energy ‘returned to the universe’? Does it also magically disappear? Do we end up with sheer nothingness? Does that help with the problem of the beginning? I repeat ad nauseam I am not questioning the calculations or the predictions. I am simply saying that does not entitle us to speak of a beginning or an end if we are to have some respect for language, if we are to have some respect for our minds.

Hawking continues the lines I quoted above by posing the question: “Could quantum mechanics have an equally dramatic effect on the big bang and big crunch singularities? … Does the universe in fact have a beginning or an end?” My position is that this question is not kosher for science. Whatever help quantum mechanics (with its uncertainty principle) may have for the impasse of the bang and the crunch, it will necessarily leave us either with a beginning requiring a prior beginning or with utter nothingness out of which unaccountably the beginning began, and we are back with the fiat of the transcendent God. Let us see.

Hawking writes: “…in 1981 my interest in questions about the origin and fate of the universe was reawakened when I attended a conference on cosmology organized by the Jesuits in the Vatican” (p. 61). This is very interesting. It changes the character of the question. So science, instead of telling the Church with Kant that the theological question is unanswerable and indeed meaningless tries to rival the theological answer with an answer of its own. So I am not wronging Hawking when I blame him for wandering where science dare not tread.

“We are therefore fairly confident that we have the right picture, at least back to about one second after the big bang” (p. 62). That’s fairly near the beginning but I will not buy it for the genuine article. One second earlier, not before the bang but at the bang, was there something or nothing? I repeat, I am not questioning the scenario of the development of the universe from the situation one second or one millionth of a second after the big bang. I am asserting that it is not for science to say what made whatever that banged bang: even that would not be the beginning, for to bang it had to be there in the first place.

We are told that “one might as well cut the big bang, and any events before it, out of the theory, because they can have no effect on what we observe” (p. 63). That’s just it; science has to do solely with what we observe. The big bang with its strictly absurd and unapproachable singularity is a fiction.

Hawking cites (p. 64) the well-known ‘theory’ of a horde of monkeys hammering on typewriters and eventually producing a Shakespeare sonnet (in the original, as I remember, it was Hamlet). On the principles of probability this may be conceivable. But then the ‘sonnet’ would merely be an ad hoc arrangement of letters. The sense in the sonnet would only be produced by and appreciated by intelligence and it is this that no mechanical process can explain. This is not a comment on Hawking. I only mention this because it illustrates how the objective approach of science necessarily leaves out all meaning and all value. Socrates stated this clearly in the Phaedo but we are still blind to it.

I can imagine an intelligent universe, that is to say a universe whose ultimate reality is creative intelligence, where there is no animal life and no intelligent individuals. I do not see human intelligence as something special. As I often stated, we are only intelligent intermittently in fleeting moments. By intelligence I do not mean cleverness: I mean neither problem-solving capability nor scientific acumen: I mean the creative intelligence that is one in the glee of a baby and in Wordsworth’s ‘Surprised by joy”.

“Most sets of values would give rise to universes that, although they might be very beautiful, would contain no one able to wonder at that beauty” (p. 64). Why not say that the universe would sense its own vitality and its own harmony? I find that more intelligible than a ‘material’ universe with no mind. I cannot see any reality bereft of or apart from intelligence. I suppose this is what Kierkegaard had in mind when he said: “Truth is subjectivity”.

Thus scientists are busy proposing models of an initial configuration leading to the present state of the universe. They choose to call that the beginning. Let’s not quarrel about a word. Call it the beginning of the life of the universe as I may call my birth the beginning of my life. But was I nothing before I was born? Besides, is the observable universe the whole of Nature? It might be. But I adamantly protest that what science studies leaves out what is most important and of greatest value for us human beings. I am certain that Hawking as a person knows the value of beauty, of love, of imagination, of “devotion to something afar from the sphere of our sorrow”. But all that has no place and can have no place in science.

I think the long digression into the question if the universe was made for humanity is quite out of place. This question cannot be decided rationally. It is strictly meaningless. All arguments advanced on the one side can be countered by equally plausible arguments on the other side. Yet Hawking, reverting to the question, writes: “Was it all just a lucky chance? That would seem a counsel of despair, a negation of all our hopes of understanding the underlying order of the universe” (p. 67). Hawking refuses to despair; he jumps from this back to the problem of the beginning.

“If the classical theory of general relativity was correct, the singularity theorems that Roger Penrose and I proved show that the beginning of time would have been a point of infinite density and infinite curvature of space-time. All the known laws of science would break down at such a point. … what the singularity theorems really indicate is that the gravitational field becomes so strong that quantum gravitational effects become important … one has to use a quantum theory of gravity to discuss the very early stages of the universe. … it is possible in the quantum theory for the ordinary laws of science to hold everywhere, including at the beginning of time ...” (p. 67-68).

At this point I will not add to what I have said already except to remark that we have to distinguish very carefully between “the beginning of time” and “the very early stages of the universe”: if these are equated, “the beginning of time” would be a misnomer of no metaphysical significance.

TIME. Ahead of reaching Ch. 9, The Arrow of Time, I’ll put down these thoughts: Time is a fiction. Time is a human invention. Time is a mode of the understanding (Kant). In nature there is no such thing as time, only ceaseless becoming. Rather than speaking of the irreversibility of time we should speak of the irreversibility of becoming. Why is becoming irreversible? Because all that exists passes away. To exist is to be in flux (Heraclitus), or as I say, to be transient. To become is to vanish. What is done cannot be undone. Surely we can re-do what was done before, we can amend, can refurbish, but all of that is new creation; what has gone cannot be recalled. Not because time goes forward but because all things are constantly being created and constantly passing away. Because being (reality) is not an entity or a state but is, as Plato says, dunamis, or as I say, creativity. All seeming permanence is not the child of time but is the gift of duration. Duration is the transcendent wholeness of the act. In my philosophy ultimate reality is the Act. The Act is eternal creativity, is Creative Eternity. (See Ch. XV, “Time, Duration, and Eternity”, Quest of Reality, 2013.)

We are told that “we may regard our use of imaginary time and Euclidean space-time as merely a mathematical device (or trick) to calculate answers about real space-time.” (p. 68) This is good as far as it goes, but we risk deluding ourselves into thinking that our useful fictions reveal to us the nature of what is ultimately real. Weren’t we told before that the fragrant rose and the luscious peach are really only electrons and neutrons? Aren’t we being told that love and joy and sorrow are really neurons knocking about the brain? Whitehead called this the Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness but scientists and philosophers alike paid no attention.

“If we knew the initial state of our universe, we would know its entire history.” (p. 68) This is a very bold assumption vitiated by two defects. (1) The ‘initial state’ is always an ad hoc point. (2) The possibility of non-uniformity and irregularity in the initial situation is ignored.

“God may know how the universe began, but we cannot give any particular reason for thinking it began one way rather than another” (p. 69). Why don’t we leave it at that? Instead we resort to a trick: “… the quantum theory of gravity has opened up a new possibility, in which there would be no boundary to space-time and so there would be no need to specify the behaviour at the boundary.” Like a shrewd lawyer with a losing case resorting to a technical hitch. “The boundary condition of the universe is that it has no boundary.” How can we have an initial state then? “The universe … would neither be created nor destroyed, it would just BE.” Doesn’t that mean we can speak neither of beginning nor of end? Doesn’t that amount to saying that the question is beyond our range?

More than once Hawking gives the earth as an example of finite space without boundaries. Surely the earth has no edge off which you can fall if you travel straight on. But is the earth unbounded? With a strong enough thrust from within or pull from without you would fly off the earth. This is not an argument against what Hawking is exemplifying; it merely says that the example is not apt. A finite space without boundaries cannot be represented by any imaginable example. It is one of the legion of faeries or genii that science finds serviceable.

“Even though the universe would have zero size at the North and South Poles, these points would not be singularities, any more than the North and South Poles on the earth are singular. The laws of science will hold at them, just as they do at the North and South Poles on the earth” (p. 69). This is simply a sleight of hand. The North (or South) Pole is either an area, an actual thing, or it is the mathematical centre of the area, which is not a real thing and which does not “start” the earth. So either the representation is starkly inapt or the thing represented is flawed. It is not for me to say which is the case. I am not discussing the science but the language in the name of simple commonsense.

“Only if we could picture the universe in terms of imaginary time would there be no singularities” (p. 70). [“Imaginary time: Time measured using imaginary numbers” (Glossary). No definition of imaginary number is given in the Glossary, but on p. 68 we are told that imaginary numbers “give negative numbers when multiplied by themselves”.] To escape one absurdity we embrace another absurdity. That one works better than the other does not give it a claim to reality. I insist on calling imaginary time absurd because though it may be a useful working fiction it becomes absurd when it is given a place in the actual world. The zero is a very useful tool, a most brilliant invention of the human mind, but if you go out looking for an actual zero in the outside world you will look in vain.


“Why do we remember the past but not the future?” (Ch. 9, p. 72) In remembering we do not go back to the past but reconstitute the past. The future is an idea; it has no place in the outer world; its only place is in the mind of a human being. A dog can recall in dreaming what it experienced yesterday but it cannot plan what to do tomorrow. Aristotle knew that a statement relating to the future is neither true nor false (De Interpretatione, 18a-b). The future is imaginable, probabilistically predictable, but not cognizable until it takes place.

“ The laws of science do not distinguish between the past and the future” (p. 72). In the first place, this is a misleading statement. The laws of science that held in the past are expected to hold in the future, but they do not apply to a future that is actual now. Taken without caution the statement can lead to false conclusions. In the second place, the laws of science are essentially approximations. Einstein said: “As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain, as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.” Scientific predictions are essentially provisional. The sun will come up tomorrow provided our galaxy is not blown up. Incidentally, Einstein is a rare instance of a scientist who could think lucidly and speak lucidly outside the boundaries of equations.

Every fertilized ovum, every seed planted in the ground, goes against the second law of thermodynamics. This is not a reversal of the arrow of time: this is creativity.

“It is rather difficult to talk about human memory because we don’t know how the brain works in detail. We do, however, know all about how computer memories work. I shall therefore discuss the psychological arrow of time for computers. I think it is reasonable to assume that the arrow for computers is the same as that for humans. If it were not, one could make a killing on the stock exchange by having a computer that would remember tomorrow’s prices!” (p. 74).

I intended not to comment on the argument but I cannot let this pass. It is basically flawed and it shows the fundamental fault in scientific thinking. Scientists do not know that the objective and the subjective are two completely different orders of being. They think that the mind can be reduced to the workings of the brain. The term ‘computer memory’ is a grossly misleading misnomer. Human memory does not go back to what happened but recreates what happened. A computer only ‘remembers’ what you fed into it; human memory infuses new meaning, new significance, into what it muses. The instance of ‘making a killing on the stock exchange’ is irrelevant. Computers can (possibly do) make very good predictions of ‘tomorrow’s prices’: that is not ‘remembering tomorrow’ but simply calculating probabilities. A computer playing chess can predict the next move of a competent chess player because the move follows rules but the computer cannot predict the next move of a poor player who blunders and sacrifices his queen. The nemesis of abusing language is terrible!

I have to say that I have been neither convinced nor enlightened by the argument of Ch. 9. Scientists. as soon as they leave their equations and empirical observations behind them make very poor thinkers. This has nothing to do with their IQ. I think Bertrand Russell once said that only very learned persons can believe utter absurdities.


Scientists have got to where fact and fancy and sheer nonsense are equally permissible. In Gödel’s space-time “it would be possible for someone to go off in a rocket ship and return to earth before he set out” (Ch. 10. p. 77). Because scientists can formulate equations that formally satisfy this fancy, they convince themselves and want to convince us that this nonsense makes sense. Hawking goes on to say: “The solution Godel found doesn’t correspond to the universe we live in because we can show that the universe is not rotating” and finds other faults with the ‘solution’ but he obviously doesn’t find the idea nonsensical. So we read that “other more reasonable space-times that are allowed by general relativity and which permit travel into the past have since been found.” Are all varieties of space-times any better than fables? Gulliver’s travels (even apart from their allegorical sense and literary merit) are far better than our scientists’ proposed space-time travels.

“One might hope therefore that as we advance in science and technology, we would eventually manage to build a time machine.” (p. 79). Perhaps the laws of physics say that is possible. The laws of reason say it is nonsense. I prefer to follow reason because the laws of physics have been changing from Archimedes to Hawking and there is no guarantee they will not be overturned tomorrow. But that is neither here nor there. I insist on three points: (1) Scientists have not only not reached a beginning but they have shown that they have no conception of what metaphysical beginning means and with all their talk of time and space-time their conception of time remains that which Zeno of Elea ridiculed. (2) Whatever science may achieve in the way of theory and technology it can know nothing of what is ultimately real and can know nothing about questions of value. (4) All that science can achieve in the way of amassing knowledge and advancing technology adds absolutely nothing to human worth and human wellbeing which have quite another source, and I am decidedly not referring to any supernatural source.

“Of course, one could say that free will is an illusion anyway” (p. 80). Not only scientists have been saying this but also philosophers seduced by science. They would rather deny what we know immediately in ourselves than question the fictions of science. Hawking says: “If there really is a complete unified theory that governs everything, it presumably also determines your actions” (p. 80). I would say that is an argument against the possibility of a theory of everything. A unified theory would be at the highest level of generality and at the farthest remove from reality. Hawking continues: “But it does so in a way that is impossible to calculate for an organism that is as complicated as a human being. The reason we say that humans have free will is because we can’t predict what they will do.” This turns Leibniz’ subterfuge upside down. Leibniz equates free will with unpredictability to trick the Church. Hawking reduces free will to unpredictability to salvage determinism. The reason why you cannot predict the outcome of free will is not that humans are complicated but that humans are creative. And I have to explain that I am speaking not of choice, which is always determined by antecedents, but of creative spontaneity. And it is because all reality is creative that you will never have a meaningful or workable theory of everything, except as a bare schema that cannot rule out variations and irregularities.

Hawking concludes Chapter 10 saying: “Thus the possibility of time travel remains open.” I say: There is no actual past; there is no actual future; there is no actual time. These are ideas with which we fashion and shape the only actual existent, the present moment. You cannot travel backwards to a non-existent past nor travel forwards to a non-existent future. So the whole rigmarole is a will-o’-the-wisp.

Newton believed in absolute space and absolute time. Scientists had reason to abandon these. They merged them in space-time. Now they believe in an actual space-time or numerous actual space-times existing out there in the universe. This is the root of all their troubles. Space-time is an idea, no less than classical space or time or force or gravity. Actual astronauts can travel in actual space and the idea of space-time can help work out the details of the journey, but to imagine sending actual astronauts on journeys in a conceptual space-time with its curvatures, antiparticles, negative energy, infinite density and all that is – I’m looking for the least offensive word – foolish.


In string theories “the basic objects are not particles, which occupy a single point of space, but things that have a length but no other dimension, like an infinitely thin piece of string” (Ch. 11, p. 83). It may be all right to work out calculations with “things that have a length but no other dimension”, after all we have been working with points and lines for millennia, but to expect these licensed absurdities to give us a true picture of the actual world is, to say the least, rash.

Let me foolishly stick my neck out. What does the unification of quantum mechanics and general relativity amount to? General relativity “explains the force of gravity in terms of the curvature of a four-dimensional space-time” (Glossary). At the heart of quantum mechanics is the uncertainty principle which stipulates that “one can never be exactly sure of both the position and the velocity of a particle; the more accurately one knows the one, the less accurately one can know the other” (Glossary). Thus a principle that acknowledges our inability to ascertain the position and velocity of a particle at any given moment is to be combined with a working fiction and that is supposed to provide us with a law determining the whole course of the universe down to the emergence of humans and onwards to our final doom. I am not saying you cannot have a general law for natural processes. We have been having such laws from the first humans that applied fire to metals through Galileo and Newton down to the present day. But you buy generality at the cost of leaving out factual content. And to my mind what science leaves out is what is most important.

Different string theories “appear to be different approximations to some fundamental theory that are valid in different situations” (p. 90). Doesn’t the uncertainty principle suggest that this is what we should expect? That the ‘fundamental theory’ is unreachable, incalculable? Isn’t this a confirmation of the view that all scientific laws, all scientific theories, are approximations? And doesn’t this follow from the inescapable fictionality of all fundamental scientific concepts? May not the final truth about human knowledge be that in truth we know nothing? And does this not agree with Kant’s affirmation that all human knowledge is confined to phenomena and that we cannot penetrate beyond phenomena? And doesn’t this agree with the Platonic position that the only reality we know is the mind and the ideas in the mind and that all that is outside the mind is shadow of shadows? And further that the one reality that is our inner reality is strictly ineffable and can only be intimated in myth and allegory and parable?

At one point in the last couple of pages in Chapter 11 Hawking seems inclined to leave all possibilities open but then declares confidently: “I think that there is a good chance that the study of the early universe and the requirements of mathematical consistency will lead us to a complete unified theory within the lifetime of some of us who are around today, always presuming we don’t blow ourselves up first” (p. 91). Following that he goes on to soften and to dampen the confident enthusiasm and several times he takes away by the left hand what he gives by the right hand.

“What would it mean if we actually did discover the ultimate theory of the universe? As was explained in Chapter 1, we could never be quite sure that we had indeed found the correct theory, since theories can’t be proved. But if the theory was mathematically consistent and always gave predictions that agreed with observations, we could be reasonably confident that it was the right one.” (p. 91). In what sense would it be the right one? Only in the sense that we finally find it satisfactory for our purposes, but I insist that no scientific theory can tell us what is ultimately real.

Chapter 11 ends with a passage that I cannot let go without a couple of remarks. Hawking says that

“we have, as yet, had little success in predicting human behavior from mathematical equations! So even if we do find a complete set of basic laws, there will still be in the years ahead the intellectually challenging task of developing better approximation methods, so that we can make useful predictions of the probable outcomes in complicated and realistic situations. A complete, consistent, unified theory is only the first step: our goal is a complete understanding of the events around us, and of our own existence” (p. 91).

My first remark concerns predictability. I insist that what stands in the way of predicting human behaviour is not the complexity of the subject or the inadequacy of our methods but the spontaneity of the human act. And I repeat: we can make fairly accurate predictions in the case of choice between alternatives but can never predict the outcome of creative spontaneity. I go further: we cannot predict happenings in nature to the last detail. Nature is good-natured and normally acts in character like a well-behaved person; but both nature and your well-behaved friend are creative and full of surprises.

My second remark relates to understanding. Science tells us how things come about and how to predict (within limits) and manipulate (within limits) things and events around us. Scientists may be satisfied with that kind of understanding. But there is a deeper understanding that answers the question ‘why?’ (not ‘how?’) and there is no way to answer that question with regard to things and events in nature. Then there is the far more serious and more important matter of understanding ‘our own existence’. No amount of study of the universe, of the human body, or the human brain, can make us understand a human being. Only our subjective reality, our mind, and the ideas, ideals, and values in the mind, can give us understanding of ourselves.

It is not science that can give us understanding of ourselves or of the world. Modern science has given us power, power that we have been using and continue to use foolishly. It is not even most of what goes nowadays by the name of philosophy, but a philosophy that probes our inner reality. And it is poetry and creative literature and creative art. The way to understand ourselves and to find meaning and value in the world is to look within not without.


“The uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics implies that certain pairs of quantities, such as the position and velocity of a particle, cannot both be predicted with complete accuracy. Quantum mechanics deals with this situation via a class of quantum theories in which particles don’t have well-defined positions and velocities but are represented by a wave” (Ch. 12, p. 93).

Does this not suggest that position and velocity as elementary terms determining an object prove as inadequate as the concepts of space and time taken separately? Does it not suggest that the first building-blocks of things are not bodies or quantities but events? Is not this the insight A. N. Whitehead arrived at and found support for in Plato’s assertion that all things are ultimately nothing but dunamis? I wonder if Hawking ever read Whitehead’s Process and Reality. That book presents a rational cosmology as a set of concepts in terms of which we may describe the cosmos, without pretending to any finality. Whitehead did not presume that his cosmology dealt with what is most important and of highest value to human beings. He tackled questions of meaning and value and purpose in his other philosophical works. The objective methods of science can never approach these themes.

Hawking finds that quantum theories are (in a certain sense) deterministic, though he seems to support my initial suggestion above when he says: “The unpredictable, random element comes in only when we try to interpret the wave in terms of the positions and velocities of particles. But maybe that is our mistake: maybe there are no particle positions and velocities, but only waves.” He goes on to say: “It is just that we try to fit the waves to our preconceived ideas of positions and velocities. The resulting mismatch is the cause of the apparent unpredictability” (p. 93). To my mind the cause is much deeper. Determinism is in error basically because it denies or ignores the creativity of nature. I believe that all reality is creative. Among philosophers Bergson and Whitehead came nearest to this view. It is the central principle of the philosophy I have been propounding in all my writings; this is not the place to expound it fully.

The last portion of the concluding chapter has knocked me down. Every sentence calls for comment, but if I do that I would be doubling the length of this paper, even without quoting the text I commented on. First Hawking formulates all the ultimate questions and clearly acknowledges that they are unanswerable. So in a way he makes all that I have blabbered so far beside the point. Still I don’t think it has been a waste, because most scientists and some of our present-day philosophers can’t see that those ultimate questions are beyond human ken. Let this suffice for the first part of this remarkable concluding passage.

Hawking says:

“Up to now, most scientists have been too occupied with the development of new theories that describe what the universe is to ask the question why. On the other hand, the people whose business it is to ask why, the philosophers, have not been able to keep up with the advance of scientific theories” (p. 94).

In all my writings I have maintained that science and philosophy are two distinct domains concerned with two totally distinct realms. The ultimate ‘why’ question is beyond the reach of reason. But philosophy finds that the only reality we are given to know is our own inner reality. It is this that philosophy probes but can never exhaust. Philosophical investigation can never give us factual knowledge about the external world and the methods of science can never approach subjective reality. But I cannot expand on this here.

Yet Hawking cannot rest in the sceptical position he clearly expressed earlier, so his concluding lines read:

“However, if we do discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason – for then we would know the mind of God” (p. 94).

It is significant that the very last word in the text is ‘God’. God features 48 times in this book of less than a hundred pages, showing that Hawking is walking on a razor’s edge between physics and metaphysics. This may perhaps justify my foolhardy attempt to engage the redoubtable Hawking in this paper.

Cairo, March 13, 2016.

Monday, February 15, 2016



D. R. Khashaba

“For me, it is indifferent from where I am to begin: for that is where I will arrive back again.” Parmenides


Some twenty-six centuries ago a number of daring thinkers in the north-eastern corner of the Mediterranean laid the foundations of all philosophy and of modern science and mathematics.

Twenty-six centuries later we find the specialized sciences have amassed an astounding body of factual knowledge and have placed at the disposal of humans powers that may well prove too enormous for their own good.

Twenty-six centuries later mathematics has erected a dazzling edifice of, let us say, ‘demonstrable truths’, which not only made possible the exploration of outer space but also prepared the ground for the miracles of the digital revolution.

What has philosophy to show for its twenty-six centuries of persistent endeavour?

In the way of factual knowledge, NOTHING.

In the way of demonstrable truth, NOTHING.

(I will pass by the empty jabbering of ‘analytical philosophy’ in silence.)

Shall we then abide by Hume’s injunction and commit to the flames the works of Plato, Leibniz, Spinoza, etc.?

No! The fault is not with philosophy but with us. We should admit that we have mistaken the nature of philosophy; that we have misunderstood what is to be expected of philosophy and what philosophy is for; that to judge philosophy by the criteria of natural science or mathematics is to judge poetry likewise. For philosophy is indeed poetry.


I imagine that when I was born I found myself swimming in an ocean of colours and sounds that were not yet for me colours or sounds. (Strictly, there was yet no I to find and no self to be found.) Gradually the nebula of colours and sounds began to settle down into distinct things. In time a collection of those distinct things formed a relatively permanent central group that I separated as myself as distinct from my varying surroundings. Those things, the more permanent and the for-me-less-permanent, were given names and acquired meaning for me.

Meaning? That is a whole unfathomable world in a word. When human beings created language they created meaning. The birth of language proper – not merely gesturing or signalling by voice or motion, but the naming of things and actions – is the birth of conceptual thought. The creative mind that first named a thing initiated the world of thought. The world of thought is the specifically human world. As human beings, in our special character as human beings, we live in a world of thought.

The profound insight underlying Plato’s notion of forms or ideas escapes us just because it is so simple, so basic, so pervasive. Nothing has meaning for us, nothing is for our mind, except through an idea that is totally distinct from the thing. Locke spoke of ideas that came to us through the senses; Hume named these impressions to distinguish them from ideas proper; but these elemental impressions in themselves, apart from a receptive mind, are completely dumb. Nothing is for the mind, nothing is for me, unless my mind give it credence, investing it in a form of the mind’s own creation. We latter-day humans, inheritors of so much thought, are taught the words, but unless the mind ensconce the word in a form creatively flashed by the mind the word remains a dumb tap on the eardrum. Watch the amazement and the glee in the eyes of a twelve-month old child picking up the meaning of a new word. Helen Keller brings this out beautifully where she relates how she apprehended the meaning of a word for the first time.

“Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten—a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that “w-a-t-e-r” [finger-spelled by her inspired teacher on the palm of Helen’s hand] meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free! …Everything had a name, and each name gave birth to a new thought. As we returned to the house every object which I touched seemed to quiver with life.”

Thoughts, represented by linguistic forms – words and structures – form the intelligible world in which we have our being as human beings. From the silliest urchin to Stephen Hawking every one of us lives in a private cosmos of thought; from the saintliest soul to the most abominable murderer we all live in worlds of ideas, values, purposes, and ideals, worthy and unworthy. Apart from my biological functions, my instinctive motions, my involuntary reflexes, and habitual acts that have become automatic, apart from those everything I do is completely governed by thoughts. I am not speaking of organized thinking, reasoning, or problem solving, but of what is more basic. I love, I hate, I retaliate, I forgive, all in obedience to thoughts, evaluations, principles in my mind.

But these worlds I live in, the private world of thought and the common external world which in its turn only has meaning for me, only has being for me, in virtue of the intelligible forms in which I clothe all things, are all bereft of permanence and bereft of certainty. The world of thought has its being in that I think it, and the being of the external world is an impenetrable mystery. All I know of the external world are fictions projected by the mind on the world. The most advanced physical and astrophysical theories are forms that lend intelligibility to the ultimately unintelligible world. The only thing that I know certainly and immediately is my inner reality out of which all these thoughts, all these interpretations flow. That inner reality I call my mind or my subjectivity; it is not a thing; it is not anywhere and it is not in time; it is purely and simply this creative activity, this spontaneous outflow of thoughts and deeds.

What I have written above will sound enigmatic and meaningless to minds conditioned by the modern positivist outlook to ignore our inner reality. Bear with me; I hope what follows will make it sound less enigmatic.


Eimi . (I am.) The beginning and end of all philosophy is contained in this little word. Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am” is redundant. My inner being is the one thing that I know immediately and indubitably. Other than that all is interpretation, from the simplest sensation to the latest findings of astrophysics. That green leaf before me is only a green leaf for me when my mind picks it up as a green leaf. The conviction that the sun will rise tomorrow is a bundle of interpretations woven together.

Plato tells us that when the mind (psuchê) makes use of the body in considering anything, it is dragged by the body into the changeable and is then led into error and is confused and dizzied and is drunken (Phaedo, 79c). Then in 79d we have a winged passage which I render literally to keep as close as possible to the wording of the original: “When the soul (mind) all by herself reflects, she moves into that which is pure, always is, deathless, and constant, and being of a like nature to that, remains with that always, whenever it is possible for it to be by itself, and then it rests from wandering, and in the company of that, is constant, being in communion with such; and it is this state that is called phronêsis.” This is the life of intelligence; this is the ideal of the philosophical life. This is poetry, but not ‘mere’ poetry; this is poetical utterance intimating metaphysical insight.

Plato’s ideal of the spiritual life, life in the intelligible realm, finds poetical expression in the Phaedrus, the Symposium, and the Republic. In the Phaedrus we have the vision of a celestial home of intelligible forms whereon the gods themelves peer and are nourished. In the Symposium the lover’s soul ascends to behold absolute beauty and in communion with beauty divine, will bring forth not images of beauty but realities (212a). In the Republic the philosopher’s soul aspires to communion with reality, grasps reality by that in her which is akin to reality, and begets intelligence and reality (490a-b). This is the substance and essence of Plato’s philosophy. No theory and no doctrine but an ideal of life and a vision intimated poetically, prophetically, in myth and parable and metaphor. Our erudite scholars, taking the myths and parables for theories and doctrines, have no trouble in shredding them to tatters; they understand nothing. Only the simple of heart enjoy Plato’s works as poetry, dream with him, and are filled with wonder, wonder that makes them philosophers.

The philosophicsl soul, having realized that those who know of many beautiful things but cannot entertain the idea of Beauty in itself, go through life not awake but dreaming (Republic, 478c), and knowing that what is fully real is fully knowable, what is not real is in no way knowable, to men pantelôs on pantelôs gnôston, mê on de mêdamêi pantêi agnôston ( 477a), communing with the real in herself, envisages the Form of the Good. The Form of the Good is beyond being and beyond understanding, yet is the fount of all being and understanding. It cannot be held in a thought nor can it be confined in a being, since its essence is not to be but ever to breed being and understanding. This is true eternity: not to be but to give being. Reality is pure act. The creator is a fiction, the created is evanescent. Hence the philosopher in communion with reality does not pronounce “truth” but testifies to the reality in intelligent creativity, in poetry and art and in metaphysical myth.

Where do we find that notion of perfection imaged by Plato as the Form of the Good? Nowhere but in the human mind. It is our ideal of Reality and it is our own reality. The idea of the Whole makes us whole, the idea of Reality constitutes our reality. In philosophizing we explore our reality, gain understanding, and give expression to that understanding and that reality in creative visions. Philosophers err when they fancy or when they claim that their visions have any substance other than the substance of dreams, for we are indeed “such stuff as dreams are made on”.

This is the alpha and the omega of all philosophy, an act all philosophers have been enacting, but all of them, with the exception of Plato, were deluded, thinking they had got hold of definitive Truth.


Philosophy is the child, the ekgonos, of the inner reality of intelligent humanity. The inner reality of a human being is intelligence. Intelligence demands intelligibility. The mind as the inner reality of a human being decrees that to be is to be intelligible. That was first explicitly formulated by Parmenides: “It is the same thing to be intelligible and to be” tauto gar esti noein te kai einai.

But Plato knew that all formulations of thought, however well founded, however carefully structured, are kneaded with the essential imperfection of all particular finite being, are necessarily riddled with intrinsic contradictions. If we are not to be dragged into falsehood, or worse, if our thought is not to be congealed in deadly dogma and superstition, we must constantly destroy the foundations of every thought by dialectic. Thus Plato tells us in the Republic (533c) and thus he demonstrates to us in the Parmenides. Thus philosophy gives creative expression to our inner reality, not in factual truths, not in inferential certainties, but in myth and parable. Leave deceptive truth to the practical affairs of daily life and leave elusive certainty to the useful fictions of science. The gravest sin in a philosopher is to pretend to truth or finality.


Plato has been berated for lack of system. Neither do his writings present a system nor could anyone reduce them to a system or derive from them a coherent system. I see this not as a fault but as Plato’s distinctive merit. It is this that makes him the wisest, profoundest, and most inspiring of philosophers. Plato probed the mysteries of being and of life and the greatest of all mysteries, the mystery of mind. He saw that no formulation of thought or of language could capture or encapsulate any of these mysteries. He also saw, and that was his special genius, that the secret of all mystery was in the mind and that in communing with one’s own mind one is in communion with all reality.

Plato was a poet, his mind teeming with insights and visions of the ineffable reality of the mind. He wrote dramatic masterpieces overflowing with intimations of those insights and visions. Those who go to Plato’s works searching for doctrines or truths or demonstrations, to them Plato remains a closed book. But those who go to Plato for inspiration, looking within their own minds, communing with their own inner reality, they commune with the soul of Plato.

Plato gave us no system, no doctrine, no theory, no truth. All his so-called theories and doctrines are at bottom myths and have their value as myths intimating profound insights. Plato gave us visions of reality intimated poetically.

All profound philosophy is mythical. Leibniz’ Monadology as myth is enriching. Spinoza’s Ethics as myth is ennobling. Schopenhauer’s Will and Idea as myth is enlightening. As truth — ask our erudite scholars, they have shown them all to be false.


Philosophy is poetry or, as I put it elsewhere, philosophy is oracular.

There is one reality, our own inner reality. All else is shadow and vanity of vanities. Philosophers, poets, and artists endlessly explore that inner, strictly inexhaustible and strictly ineffable reality, and give it creative expression.

In giving creative expression to our reality we are blessed with the insight that the very essence of our inner reality is none other than that intelligent creativity.

In being intelligently creative we find our reality, nay, we create our reality. Our reality is not a thing, not an entity, but an act, a creative act. If you say: This is myth, this is only poetry, I will say: Thank you, you have done me the greatest honour.

Cairo, February 15, 2016.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016



D. R. Khashaba

[In a paper lately posted to my blog (“The Futility of Ethical Theory”) I wrote: “Conscience is another name for the moral sense. I prefer ‘moral sense since it is less open to the vagaries of occult interpretations.” It occurred to me to append a note on “conscience”. The following lines are just cursory thoughts that I may develop some other time.]

Conscience or moral sense, like the sense of beauty, is a sensibility that flowers under auspicious circumstances. It is natural in the sense that like a seed it sprouts from within in a favourable environment. Like a seed or young shoot it can be maimed, can be smothered, can be dried up.

Rather than asking whether the moral sense (conscience) is innate or acquired we should ask whether it is intrinsic or extrinsic. I would say that the moral sense flowers from within the person; we may say it is the personality of the person, it is the basic value one identifies oneself with; we may call that one’s integrity. (This usage widens the sense of the term so that ‘integrity’ no longer denotes an absolute moral value. Let us stick to the term personality.) One’s personality would then be what one will fight for and die for. That determines for everyone what is right and what is wrong, for we can define the moral sense as an inner firm conviction that there is right and wrong. One who does not have this inner criterion, inner standard, distinguishing right from wrong has no moral sense, has no ‘personality’ as defined here. Thus I would say that the moral sense unfolds within a person; it is not ‘innate’ but ‘inborn’. Specific rules and regulations are acquired but may be fully assimilated to the personality and would then assume the character of absolute values for the person concerned.

Individuals may be characterized with various levels of conscientiousness, but even a person with a normally ‘low morality’ will willingly sacrifice her or his life to defend one’s honour or defend another person.

‘Bad conscience’, the feeling of sin or guilt, comes when one infringes a maxim or value conventionally acknowledged but not fully assimilated. Macbeth was normally loyal to his king; had that loyalty been fully integrated in his personality he would not have succumbed to the temptation of assassinating the king and usurping the kingdom. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth had enough ‘morality’ to feel that what they did was wrong but that ‘morality’ was not so fully integrated with their personality as to make them resist the temptation.

When the ‘emotions’ rather than ‘reason’ determine choice, the choice, whether a good one or a bad one, is not a moral choice. When Plato says that reason should control the passions he is not referring to moral will or moral action. Where choice is relevant we are on the amoral plane. We should only speak of morality where there is spontaneity. I am here only apparently contradicting what I said in the preceding paragraph. Here I am using ‘morality’ in a stricter sense.

What has been censured as Socrates’ ‘intellectualism’ comes from the fact that when he asserted that to know what is right ensures that one would do what is right – this is the gist of identifying epistêmê and aretê – he was thinking of a fully rational person. Socrates’ personality was so fully integrated – we have ample evidence in his life and death for that – that he assumed that all persons, once enlightened, could be fully rational. Sadly, as I have repeatedly asserted elsewhere, the best of us are only rational by fits and starts. When we are at our best we cannot fail to do what we know is right. Shelley’s Prometheus curses Zeus, but when he is reminded of it by Mother Earth he says: “It doth repent me: words are quick and vain: Grief for a while is blind, and so was mine. I wish no living thing to suffer pain.”

Cairo, February 2, 2016.

Sunday, January 31, 2016




D. R. Khashaba


This paper was originally intended as an examination of the limits of ethical theory but turned into a rambling excursion into moral philosophy and ethics. Hence its rather amorphous character. I take my start from two propositions: (1) Moral pronouncements are not demonstrable rational judgments. (2) Moral pronouncements are not verifiable empirical statements.

To elucidate and justify these two propositions I will begin with an outline of Socrates’ philosophical outlook, which I see as an insightful rationale of all moral philosophy. I will also give a partial account of Plato’s philosophical outlook aimed particularly at clearing certain prevalent distortions and misunderstandings of Plato’s work. I will then say something about the nature of theory in general and then see where all that leaves ethical theory.


Socrates’ philosophical outlook is grounded in the insight that human beings live, strictly speaking, in a world of their own creation, a world of ideas and ideals. That is what characterizes us as humans, distinct from all other animal species. All our conscious action is governed by ideas, aims, beliefs, evaluations, true or false, good or corrupt. As such our whole worth is in the mind or soul that is the home and fount of those ideas and ideals. Our wellbeing is in a healthy soul (mind, psuchê, nous). All so-called particular goods are means to some end. The final end is the understanding or wisdom that is the character of a wholesome soul or mind. (See for example the didactic conversations with the lad Clinias in the Euthydemus.)That is the special excellence of a human being, the specific human virtue, aretê, the peculiar human function, dunamis. The soul prospers by doing what is morally right and is harmed by doing what is morally wrong. (Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray is a striking allegory of this moral insight.)

Socrates distinguished the ideas that are born in the mind and are to be found nowhere but in the mind from the things in the outer world. The former are intelligible; the latter are perceptible. Plato, extending the distinction beyond the moral sphere, referred to the intelligible ideas by the term eidos (form) or idea (not to be confused with the English ‘idea’, at any rate not in the Lockean or Humean sense). In his youthful exuberance Plato sang the praises of the Forms; in the Phaedo he overemphasized their immutability and permanence; in the Phaedrus he gave them a celestial home; in the Meno he tells a tale told ‘by priests and priestesses’ affirming that the forms come with the soul from another world. All of this is sheer poetry. In the first part of the Parmenides he shows that the ‘separateness’ of the intelligible forms cannot be maintained. In the Sophist he shows the error of ascribing to the forms absolute immutability and permanence. Like all things intelligible and perceptible their reality is none other than their activity, dunamis. Aristotle took Plato’s poetical flights too literally and burdened all subsequent philosophy with the fiction of Platonic eternal forms existing separately in a world of their own. Plato in the Symposium represents the ascent to the vision of absolute Beauty as a journey of the soul, wholly within the soul (201a ff.). In the Republic the highest philosophical insight is attained when the philosopher strives to grasp that which truly is by that in her or him which is most akin to what truly is (490a). It is not my intention to give here a full account of Plato’s philosophy, but I had to touch on this aspect since certain ethical theorists speak of an eternal world of truths or values existing separately. They have every right to their theory but it is wrong to ascribe it to Plato. Plato has been misunderstood and his philosophy grossly distorted because he is read as a theorist whereas he is fundamentally a poet. I have been harping on this in all my writings and will not further amplify on it here.


Ethical terms are creations of the mind, are ideal creations, are creative insights. The question of the subjectivity or objectivity of moral ideals and principles is enveloped in multiple confusions of thought and language, confusions compounded by the prevalent empirical identification of the real with the objective. Once this view is embraced it is impossible to find any reality in moral ideals and values or any ultimate ground for them. We can only (1) on the one hand give a descriptive account – historical, anthropological, etc. – of the rise of specific rules and regulations, and/or (2) on the other hand find objective justifications – hedonistic, utilitarian, theological – for such rules and regulations. All such empirical derivations and all such justifications are extra-moral, irrelevant to the essence of morality.

It denigrates morality to say that our moral sentiments are grounded in emotion. When Socrates says we should never return harm for harm (the Crito, tne Gorgias) that amounts to the creation of a moral ideal. Living up to the ideal flowers in an emotional state yet the emotion is not the cause or ground of the ideal but the issue of the ideal.

Plato in the Sophist likens the ever-raging war between materialists and idealists to the mythological battle of the Gods and the Giants (245e-246e). Socrates in the Crito says that those who hold and those who reject the maxim that it is never right to harm anyone can have no common ground (49c-d). But let us foolishly attempt the hopeless task. We idealists say that the ‘reality’ of the physical world is a sham. Heraclitus saw that all things in the natural world are in flux: they never are but are always becoming, as Plato puts it. Real are the Logos and the unfathomable soul. Plato saw that the immutable, fleeting external world is a shadow. This is not to deny the ‘existence’ of the outer world as another prevalent misunderstanding of Plato has it. When the idealist says the external world is an illusion this is the philosopher’s version of “vanity of vanities, all is vanity”. For Plato the ideas in the mind and the mind itself are what is real. Kierkegaard said that Truth is subjectivity. Subjectivity, I say, is our inner reality, is all the reality we know, and is the fount of all that is real for us.

The historical-anthropological fact that moral values and rules have arisen in time and vary from time to time and from location to location is commonly taken to show that moral values and moral judgments are relative. Specific evaluations and specific rulings are certainly the product of particular time and particular place. And as I said earlier tribal, social, civil rules are not essentially moral. But when the moral sense takes over, when a tribesman cares for a wounded fellow-tribesman not only because the ethos of the tribe requires it but because, regardless of the conventional requirement, his heart goes out for the wounded person, then the act is a moral act and has absolute moral value. When Shelley’s Prometheus cries out, “It doth repent me … I wish no living thing to suffer pain” he at once attains a moral and a metaphysical status far above Zeus and far, far above Yahweh. The moral value is a subjective reality and subjective reality is metaphysical reality. In my philosophy metaphysical reality does not ‘exist’; it is not an objective actuality: this is what Plato variously terms alêtheia, to on, ho estin, ousia. It is not an entity, and that is what makes the notion of metaphysical reality difficult to grasp — it is not an entity but pure act, it is Plato’s phronêsis, or, in my terminology, it is intelligent creativity.

Metaphysical realities and moral realities do not ‘exist’ in a ‘spirit-like’ domain in a world beyond this world; they are real in the metaphysical reality of the subjective, they are eternal, not in extended time in this world or in another world, but in the momentary transcendence of the subject. This is the paradox that only the poets understand. In intelligent creativity, in deeds of love and in philosophical, poetical, and artistic creativity we are eternal not everlastingly but fleetingly. Poets and mystics have known this; among philosophers perhaps only Plato and Plotinus grasped it.

Moral values and principles issue from the integrity of the moral sense. Kant called this the moral will. In “Reasoning in Kant’s Ethical Works (in Plato’s Universe of Discourse, 2015) I wrote: “When Kant says that nothing is good absolutely but a good will and Socrates teaches that the only intrinsically good thing is a healthy soul, on the outside these seem to be different positions, but I see in them the same insight.” (The reader will notice that I often collate seemingly divergent philosophical positions. No one is truly philosophical if she or he does not see the unity of all genuine philosophical insight.)

Socrates nowhere says why we should act morally. He says that by doing what is morally right something in us (call it our soul or our inner reality) flourishes and by doing wrong it sickens. I say that it is improper even to call this a justification of morality. To justify morality is to negate morality. So what does it amount to? That Socrates finds his whole worth and value and meaning in, as he puts it, following reason; but when we try to find what following reason involves for Socrates, we find it exhausted in doing what makes our soul healthy and shunning what harms our soul. The arguments of the Socratic investigations are invariably circular: virtue is found to be wisdom (epistêmê) and wisdom is found to be virtue. That is the whole of morality: to find our good in a wholesome soul, or naively put, to find our good in being good. It is to elect a mode of life. This can be given various thought articulations. Kant says the only absolutely good thing is a good will. This says no more than that it is good to be good. When we seek to find a reason for goodness outside the goodness, whether the reason be divine will or utility, we infringe the autonomy of morality and it is no longer morality but self-seeking. This is the insight underlying Socrates’ pregnant question in the Euthyphro: “Is piety loved by the gods because it is piety, or is it piety because it is loved by the gods?” (10a).

In the Gorgias Socrates maintains that it is better to suffer wrong than to inflict wrong. Callicles lampoons him. In Book One of the Republic he leads Polemarchus to admit that it is never right to harm anyone. Thrasymachus angrily calls this nonsense. In either case Socrates argues at length but cannot win over his opponent. A moral judgment cannot be inferred rationally nor demonstrated logically. In “Reasoning in Kant’s Ethical Works”, already cited above, I affirm that Kant’s arguments in both the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785) and in the Critique of Practical Reason (1787) “prove nothing and serve no purpose. They are, to say the least, redundant.” Kant in the end grounds the Ideas of Pure Reason or Postulates of Practical Reason in faith, faith not justified by Pure Reason but ‘required’ by Practical Reason.

The role of reason in motivating moral action is secondary or ancillary. It only comes in where there is occasion for weighing alternatives or deliberating consequences. (In “Free Will as Creativity” – included in The Sphinx and the Phoenix, 2009 – I insist that confusing free will with choice vitiates the discussion of the problem.) But the moral act itself is arational, is unreasoned. Specific moral maxims can be rationally justified within the framework of accepted values or principles. If I oppose abortion or euthanasia on the ground of the sanctity of life, my maxim is reasoned, but the principle of the sanctity of life itself is arational. You cannot by reasoning convince one who rejects it. Judgments and controversies relating to such question should not properly even be referred to as ethical; they are practical issues: juristic, legalistic, political, etc.


Psychology does not explain morality. Any ‘motives’ for ‘acting morally’ empty the act of all morality. The moral act is essentially autonomous and spontaneous. This is the significance of Kant’s Categorical Imperative which simply affirms and emphasizes the autonomy of the moral act. When the ‘imperative’ comes from outside the moral will it negates morality. The Mosaic Commandments have nothing to do with morality. They are social regulations necessary for the existence of any cohesive group. In the most primitive of tribes rules are observed to preserve peace and ensure cooperation. Such rules in and by themselves are not moral, but the orderly and peaceful milieu they foster is conducive to the flourishing of moral sentiment: amity, loyalty, caring. A mother’s care for her newborn babe is instinctive, but in a normal human mother it develops or fortifies a truly moral sentiment of love.

To my mind no view is more shallow than crude hedonism. That pleasure is the main drive for human action does not stand even to empirical examination, unless we so loosen the connotation of ‘pleasure’ to make it apply to equanimity or contented satisfaction at having reached one’s goal. Ask any athlete or any politician, not to say any scientist or poet or artist. With the exception of principled ascetics, we all welcome pleasure when it comes. Certain individuals may be addicted to certain types of pleasure. Such persons are diseased; in Aristotle’s wise phrase, they call for medication rather than edification; but even in their case pleasure may not be all they live for. If we want to specify the most fundamental drive of human action I think we can find no better than affirmation of self. The most mean may find that in rapaciousness; better characters may find it in ‘success’, in various achievements; the noblest characters find it in outgoing giving, in creative activity. Plato in the Symposium says that all living things desire immortality (Diotima’s speech), but where do they find immortality? At the lowest level in procreation; at a higher level in creativity. Goethe works the salvation of Faust by making him build bridges for the benefit of others. Achilles dies to affirm his ethos. The essence of it all is life-affirmation, for life itself is nothing but that, affirmation of life. Thus self-affirmation is not to be equated with selfishness, for the difference between the meanest and the noblest character lies in the expanse of the self. Altruism is not opposed to selfhood: it is essentially expansion of self. Egotism is constriction of self.

Human beings are not naturally selfish. Every one of us is necessarily self-centred, but sympathy and fellow-feeling are not only natural in humans but are also evident in many brutes. (I do mean sympathy and fellow-feeling in the brutes as in humans and not merely solidarity or gregariousness.) What brings out the manifestations of culpable selfishness are the complications of social life and the false values of competitiveness, pride, privilege, and the like. These false values and the pressures of ill-organized society corrupt us and blind us to the other. The only cure for this is the Socratic scrutiny of our ideas and ideals, our goals and values.

The differentiation between the worldly and the other-worldly attitude or mode of life is not fundamental. Except when it is based on a theological dogma that literally advocates giving up ‘worldly goods’ in expectation of reward in a future world, which at once makes it an unmoral position, except in that case worldliness and unworldliness or other-worldliness is a matter of temperament and personal choice. This is another area where Plato has been grossly misunderstood. The dictum that a philosopher practises death simply intimates that a genuine philosopher finds reality and value not in the things of the outer world but in the treasures of the soul. Jesus of Nazareth was not ascetic. Socrates was not an ascetic. He has even been charged with crude hedonism, which is a sample of the folly of unimaginative erudition. But I will not here digress into questions I have dealt with amply elsewhere.

Any exterior explanation or justification of a moral act makes it amoral. This is the gist of Kant’s much maligned insistence that only acts done from duty are moral. Kant’s formulation is unfortunate. Besides having given rise to much misunderstanding, it leaves out spontaneous acts of pure love. But the point of Kant’s dictum is to emphasize the essential autonomy of the moral act.

It is not practically possible to have a universally valid test for judging whether a particular act or even a particular maxim or rule is moral or amoral. For instance the rule “Do unto others what you would they do unto you” can be regarded as amoral if it is taken to aim at ensuring the effective working of inter-personal relations, but if it is meant to enjoin placing oneself in the place of the other and taking into account the feelings as well as the interests of the other, then I would see it as a moral maxim. Thus ‘normative ethics’, developing or articulating a set or system of rules can be mostly amoral. The laws enacted by the state can only be and should always be amoral, as it is not for the state to delve into the morals of individuals. Only a theocratic state presumes the right to doing that, and in so doing undermines morality.

Plato in the Phaedo condemns all ‘popular virtue’ as an exchange of pleasure for pleasure, pain for pain, fear for fear. The only proper exchange is of all things for wisdom (phronêsis). Only in the company of wisdom do we have true courage and temperance and justice. (Phaedo, 69a f.) This spells out the Socratic insight into the unity of all virtue and the identity of virtue with finding our proper good in a wholesome intelligent soul.

Of the special ‘Christian’ virtues – faith, hope, and charity – only ‘charity’ can be seen as a moral virtue; ‘faith’ and ‘hope’ as intended in Christian theology are requirements for salvation; as such they are maxims of expediency denuded of moral sense. Expediency is the carcass of morality. Outside the theological domain it is only with much explication and qualification that faith and hope can be admitted as virtues in the normal sense of the term.

Applied ethics is only practicable within an established system of commonly accepted values and principles. Its rulings are not moral judgments but empirical deductions. In deciding individual cases in issues of ‘applied ethics’ we face not only the conflict of various moral outlooks, but even within the scope of a commonly embraced moral outlook we may face the clash of different moral maxims or values. If we were living in a perfect world there would be no such clash or conflict, but we are living in a world drenched through and through with imperfection. In such a world we often encounter problem-issues that are not open to any clear-cut application of principle. It is in these cases that a morally alive person has tragically to bear the onus of appealing to her or his conscience, taking the plunge, and committing what for the moment seems to her or him the lesser wrong. (Conscience is another name for the moral sense. I prefer ‘moral sense since it is less open to the vagaries of occult interpretations.


What is a theory? A theory of Language for instance or of Truth? Such a theory erects a conceptual structure to shed intelligibility and lend coherence to a phenomenon or an experiential state. The conceptual structure, as an externally imposed pattern, can never exhaust the strictly endless manifestations of the phenomenon or encompass the unfathomable depths of the experience. To conceptualize is to create abstractions and distinctions: every abstraction and every distinction imposes an ad hoc workable fiction and comes loaded with intrinsic imperfection. Thus all theory falsifies its object and no theory can claim to be definitively true. Witness the literally endless squabbles and clashes of our erudite scholars over conflicting theories. They quarrel instead of acknowledging that each theory is an artificial representation from a particular viewpoint. In the field of physical theory, Wittgenstein brings this out lucidly in Proposition 6.341 of the Tractatus, which is too long to quote in full here.


We have to make a clear distinction between moral philosophy and ethics. A human being’s moral philosophy reflects the kind of life she or he lives, the kind of person she or he is or is supposed to be, whether by deliberate choice or by passively submitting to convention and the prevailing mores. Socrates and Plato had a moral philosophy yet neither of them had an ethical theory. Using the term loosely we may say that they had ethics but not ethical theories. Spinoza named his magnum opus Ethics but in substance that great book presents a moral vision but not an ethical theory. Kant had a noble moral philosophy but a botched theory of ethics that only serves to befog and disfigure his fine moral vision. (Using the term ethics loosely to cover moral philosophy is not conducive to clear thinking and should be avoided.)

There are two categories of ethical theory. The first poses the question: How does morality come about? The second asks: Why should we be moral? The ‘how’ question is empirical, it can be approached historically, anthropologically, sociologically, pedagogically, etc., and with each approach we can have enlightening accounts, that can however never be exhaustive or definitive, and in all cases they do not reveal or touch on the essence of morality. In other words, this is a scientific question which, like all natural investigation, has the prospect of endless but never final development. The first category of ethics is of a scientific nature yet it is not a unified science but a potentially proliferating group of scientific disciplines. Let me leave it at that.

The ‘why’question which is not open to empirical investigation is strictly unanswerable. Thus the second category of ethics is misguided when it thinks it can arrive at a rationally explicative theory. The moral sense, once we attain to it, is a metaphysical reality, and like all reality is an unfathomable mystery. We cannot explain it. Goodness, like Beauty, like Being, is unexplainable. Before these ultimate mysteries we can only stand in awe and intimate their reality in myth and parable and song. Shakespeare’s Tragedies, Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, Coleridge’s Rime o f the Ancient Mariner, are as good intimations of moral reality as any philosophical exposition.

As if the abstractedness of traditional ethical theory is not remote enough from the realities of life, philosophers today indulge in metaethics, theorizing the theory of ethics at one more remove from reality. The questions of ‘metaethics’, when meaningful and not merely empty jabbering with vacuous abstractions, are the normal questions of traditional ethical theory. What is called ‘normative ethics’ is only meaningful within an accepted moral outlook. It simply elucidates and explicates implications and consequences on the ground of that given outlook. A Hedonist and a Stoic have no common ground; any discussion between them is like one between a Chinese and a Spaniard neither of them speaking the language of the other. ‘Applied ethics’ is only a further particularization of ‘normative ethics’; it unfolds implications and consequences in specified areas or in relation to definite practical problems on the ground of an accepted morality. That is why controversies in the field of bioethics for instance can never be settled by reasoning. Debates about political issues also cannot be settled by rational argument. In all practical conflicts and clashes the only sane approach is for the different parties to be willing to be open to the outlook of the other and to compromise.


By all means let our scholars theorize about morality and call their theorizing ethical theory or metaethics. All that is good intellectual exercise. But it should be clear to us that none of that catches the essence of morality. We go to the heart of morality not in any theory but in the simple pronouncements of Socrates, of Gautama the Buddha, of the Sermon on the Mount, in the works of inspired poets and dramatists and novelists, in Beethoven’s symphonies and sonatas, for the reality of moral experience is unfathomable, incomprehensible, inexhaustible, and will always be intimated anew in deeds of love and in works of creative intelligence.

January 31, 2016.