Tuesday, January 31, 2006




The newly elected Pope Benedict XVI (Cardinal Ratzinger) has brought to the fore the critical problem of the rival claims of absolutism and relativism in the governance of human life. Absolute truths and absolute values are advanced as both the support and the reward of religion.
Shortly after his election Pope Benedict was quoted in BBC News as saying, "We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its higher goal one's own ego and one's own desires." With all due respect I submit that this is propagandist rhetoric. Let us experimentally replace the emotively charged words 'dictatorship', 'ego', and 'desires' in this sentence with others and see how the tenor is transformed: "We are moving toward a sane relativism which does not recognize anything as for absolutely certain and which has as its highest goal one's own soul and one's own ideals." This becomes a defensible, though not an adequate, position. The inadequacy stems from the apparent isolation of 'one's own soul and one's own ideals' from the totality of life and humanity. This in itself is an illustration of how a relative relativism (as opposed to a nihilistic relativism) is a healthier stance than absolutism.
Let us begin by asking: Can a finite mind escape relativism? It would seem obvious – one could say axiomatic if the very word did not reek of presumptuousness – that a finite understanding cannot establish or entertain an absolute judgement. Does this land us in a thoroughgoing relativism? This is a question that calls for nicely discriminating consideration if we are not to go to ruin between the Scylla of absolute dogmatism and the Charybdis of nihilistic relativism. It is a question that I have taken up in "Must Values Be Objective?" and elsewhere. The following note is simply a marginal comment.
If we admit that it is not given to our finite understanding to reach absolute truth and absolute standards, it might seem that one recourse open to us is to rely on a perfect mind to provide us with the absolute truths and standards that we need. This is the claim of all theistic faiths. The problem with this claim is twofold. In the first place, the various theistic systems, all equally laying claim to good credentials, produce discrepant truth-claims and diverging standards, and where they agree – as on certain moral maxims and values –, the same maxims and values are found to be affirmed by non-theistic systems. In the second place, and this is perhaps the weightier consideration, if we decide to overlook the discrepancies between 'revealed' truths and principles, as for instance by peremptorily opting for one 'revelation' against the others, the acquiescence in such a handed-down system of beliefs and values amounts to forfeiting our autonomy and all claim to personal dignity. Some people may find, indeed innumerable people do find, this an acceptable price to pay for the comfort it gives: with these it is pointless to argue.
Putting aside reliance on revelation while acknowledging that absolute truth and absolute standards – involving absolute judgements – are beyond the reach of our finite minds, can we still form judgements and maxims and embrace values sufficiently secure for the guidance of life?
I believe we can if we choose for anchorage two confessedly subjective principles: (a) our moral and intellectual integrity as our inalienable birthright and the whole of our worth; and (b) the affirmation of the intrinsic value of all life as the criterion for the rightness or wrongness of all action.
In the light of these two rpinciples the actual historical and geographical relativity of moral codes and values and the notorious contradictions and incogency of philosophical views lose their sting. Indeed, by candidly acknowledging the relativity of moral codes and standards and the ineradicable insufficiency of all philosophical positions what we lose in the way of certainty we gain in the humility and inward truthfulness necessary both for the life of civilized society and for the life of a wholesome individual.


The atrocities of the recent London blasts have brought to the fore once more the conflict between the need for security – the right of peaceful citizens to protection – on the one hand, and the need to safeguard the privacy and civil liberties of individuals on the other hand. No equation or calculus however refined or sophisticated can tell us where to draw the line between these two legitimate needs. The line will be and has to be a shifting one, shoved this way and that way by differing circumstances and under differing conditions. What is of the highest importance is to keep alive the awareness that the right of individuals to security and the right of individuals to liberty are equally absolute, though in our imperfect world they necessarily limit each other and neither can be allowed to reign absolutely. They are inviolable and yet we have to violate them.
Our sole worth as human beings resides in the insight we have into absolute values. But we are imperfect creatures living in an imperfect world and the values which light our path in life are dimmed and constrained by the contingencies of actual existence. Our actions cannot be the actions of gods. When we forget the humility proper to our imperfection, we fall into the brutalities of Talibans who obey the commands of Allah and the callous atrocities of officers who obey the commands of Authority in Abou Ghraib and Guantanamo.
The interminable controversies raging around problems involving the application of ethical principles are needlessly embittered by the erroneous assumption on all sides that such problems are amenable to neat theoretical solutions. In such controversies it cannot be the case that one side is in the right and the other in the wrong.
To say so is not to admit a thoroughgoing relativism. Let us take the question of abortion for instance. The preservation of the life of the unborn baby, at whatever stage of gestation, is an absolute value. The preservation of the life and health of the expectant mother is an absolute value. If we were in a world of pure ideals these absolutes would not conflict. But in the actual world absolutes come embodied in instances loaded with the imperfections of finitude and particularity. These particular instances will clash, even when they are instances of the selfsame value.
Such questions can only be discussed reasonably and fruitfully when on all sides we acknowledge that such problems are not open to neat logical solutions. Then and only then will each party approach the position of the other party with sympathy and understanding. Then we realize that no law or regulation can be formulated or devised to satisfy all claims to the full or to be applicable satisfactorily to all particular cases. Then we realize that every actual case cannot but be an individual instance of the general tragedy of life, the general tragedy of all existence, to be approached with the awe, reverence, sensitivity, and humility proper to the finite confronting a law of the Infinite.


What is wrong with relativism? First I have to point out that I am not posing the question rhetorically but inquiringly. I intend to examine what is wrong with relativism but only in the context of exploring what is right with relativism.
Relativism is inescapable, since all actual existence, by the very fact that it is actual, is determinate and finite and therefore relative. I think this is the basic lesson of the Parmenides of Plato. But relativism as an outlook is itself relative: it is relative to the actual, the existent. The hub on which all our relative perceptions and relative judgements turn is the inner reality of the mind. It is the intrinsic worth of that inner reality that is the secure refuge of all value. You may change every law, infringe every maxim you lay down – for no fixed law or maxim can apply to every possible situation – as long as you preserve the integrity of your inner reality and your inner worth.
But relativism does not mean that whatever anyone says goes; it does not mean that all opinions and all judgements are of equal value. That is part of what I mean by saying that relativism itself is relative. For every opinion and every judgement relates to a context and every context may relate to a wider context. Therefore, when I say that relativisim is inescapable this does not mean that we have to admit the validity of the Protagorean 'Man the measure' in its extension to judgements as critically explored in Plato's Theaetetus.
It is unfortunate that relativism has been wedded to the Protagorean 'Man the measure', whose limitations have been exposed by Plato in the Theaetetus. We have to distinguish between these.
So while any meaningful opinion or judgement – that is, any opinion or judgement that is not nonsensical, that has some measure of coherence – must necessariloy have a measure or an element of truth, there must always be criteria for evaluating the opinion or judgement. The criteria in turn are necessarily relative, but they belong to a higher echelon in the ideal hierarchy that constitutes the intellectual constitution of an individual or a communal culture. It is such an ideal constitution that gives individuals and cultures their relative stability and integrity.
The concept of objective truth is only relevant to facts, to actual existents. Even there it has its limiting conditions, but let that pass for the moment. But in questions of value there is no fact – nothing which 'is the case' – external to the judgement to which the judgement may conform or not conform as an empirical judgement may conform or fail to conform to ascertainable fact. Of course you can always reduce the judgement or connect the judgement to objective conditions. Someone says, Love thy neighbour. You may go on to show by observation, by statistics, even by laboratory experiment, that following this maxim actually results in comfort, prosperity, better health for all parties concerned. But that does not touch the moral issue. What if I am clever enough to secure for myself comfort, prosperity, and bodily wellbeing, while not only hating my neighbour but also actively harming her or him? You can only see that as wrong if you accept the Socratic notion that the most precious thing in you flourishes by doing good and withers by doing bad deeds.


What positive contribution have our professional and academic philosophers made to the major social, cultural, and political debates of our time? Have they in their pretended new sciences of bioethics, metaethics, and the like, been able to lay down valid principles or offer serviceable maxims for settling the controversies raging round such problems as abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, cloning – to name a few issues that come to mind at random?
Doubtless many of them have made thoughtful, enlightening contributions to the discussion of such problems. That is not the point. My point is that in fostering the belief that the new-fangled 'disciplines' are capable of ever reaching rationally deduced definitive solutions to such problems, more harm than good has been done. In all such problems there are not one right way and one wrong way. All such problems issue from the ineradicable imperfection of all actual existence. In every such problem there is a conflict between two values where there is not room for the two together.
The sane, healthy, and beneficial way to deal with such problems is for each side of the controversy to sympathize with the other side, and for the two sides to try by compromise, by give and take, by trial and error, to reach pragmatic decisions and arrangements, always subject to revision and alteration.
On the contrary, assumig that such problems are capable, if only theoretically and ideally, of definitive philosophical or scientific solution, with the implication that there is an absolute right and an absolute wrong in such questions, only leads to intransigence and loss of the capacity for imaginative sympathy and understanding on both sides of a controversy. In this way philosophy, believing itself capable of reaching truth, instead of fighting dogmatism and doggedness, institutes its own dogmatisms and sanctified ideologies, breeding hatred and enmity and conflict instead of love and friendliness and harmony.
The only cure for this malady is the cure prescribed by Socrates: the confession of philosophical ignorance. No one can possess the final and unalterable truth on any question. All we can do and all we have to do is to seek understanding – critical understanding of ourselves and sympathetic, loving understanding of our fellow human beings.
I had just written the above lines when I came across an article ("Tortured logic", by Christopher Shea, The Boston Globe, December 18, 2005) discussing various opposed approaches to the so-called 'ticking-bomb' thought experiment designed as a test-tube case for examining whether torture may be permissible under certain circumstances. I confess that I find the very idea of this particular thought-experiment nauseating. I think that the mere idea of discussing the 'permissibility' of torture cannot fail to be as demoralizing as associating with torturers even if for the purpose of scientific research. But the thing is with us; there is no escape; I find it necessary to say my say.
In my opinion, the whole controversy over the question of torture is flawed because all parties think they can prove by argument whether it is ever right or never right to resort to torture for a good cause. Seeking to settle the question one way or the other by logical argument is wrong. Here there are distinct positive values involved that, in our essentially imperfect world, under certain circumstances, stand in irreconcilable opposition. To debate the question as if it could be decided once and for all, even if only theoretically, one way or the other, obliges the two parties to the controversy to negate one value or the other. What we need instead is to stress the ultimacy of the pure values and acknowledge that in practice there will be tragic situations where a positive value is inevitably sacrificed.
Those who seek to prove by logical argument that under certain hypothetical circumstances torture can be justified envelop in thick smoke an insight of human civilization dearly bought, that torture is degrading in the first place not so much to the tortured subject as to the society that finds torture acceptable under any circumstances.
Those who seek to demonstrate logically that under no circumstances is it right to apply torture, in thus advancing a rigid dogmatic stance make it impossible to weigh, where necessary, sacrifices and losses to avoid the greater by accepting the lesser.
What are we to do then? I believe that, in the first place and above all, we must never legalize torture. To do that is to reverse the course of human civilization and slip into a bottomless abyss of degradation. But there may be circumstances in which a certain person is impelled to apply torture to save life. Shall we condemn that person then? I would not. That person was placed in a tragic situation where whatever s/he did would result in some evil. But it is harmful, it is soul-polluting, to spread the idea that under certain circumstances the application of torture is justifiable: to establish that as a principle is to introduce a deadly germ into the body of humanity.
Is my position logical? No. How could it be? The whole situation is a concoction of imperfection: nothing consistently good can be made of it. What we can and should do is to hold fast to our ultimate moral insights: life is good; pain is bad; pain in someone intending to injure a person dear to me is still bad; loss of life for an intending killer is still bad. When I find myself forced to do a bad thing that does not make it good, even though the act does not make me evil, yet it makes me miserable.


Scientists and Philosophy

If a philosopher, with no special training in science, were to offer an opinion on a scientific question, s/he would quickly be laughed out of court and would soon lose respect and credibility in her/his own field. But scientists assume the right to speak boldly and with all the show of authority on questions which should properly only be discussed with due regard to their philosophical bearings. I have within the past few days come across two specimens which call for some comment. The first comes from Ernst Mayr, perhaps unquestionably the most eminent living bilogist and the most prominent Darwinist since T. H. Huxley; the second comes from an article by John Gribbin, who, in his own words, is "someone who has been involved professionally in scientific research".
In an interview on EdgeVideo Mayr says:
"One of my themes is that Darwin changed the foundations of Western thought. He challenged certain ideas that had been accepted by everyone, and we now agree that he was right and his contemporaries were wrong. Let me just illuminate some of them. One such idea goes back to Plato who claimed that there were a limited number of classes of objects and each class of objects had a fixed definition. Any variation between entities in the same class was only accidental and the reality was an underlying realm of absolutes." http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/mayr/mayr_print.html
Now this is a gross misrepresentation of Plato. Plato's so-called 'theory of forms' has been the subject of much cotroversy and much misunderstanding, but the gist of it may be put in this way: There can be no rational knowledge of the ever-changing particulars of sense, but only of the intelligible forms supplied by the mind. Brute facts which lie before our eyes dumb and senseless suddenly become infused with meaning when a genius hits upon an idea that embraces the facts in an intelligible formation. In his famous 'divided line' simile (Republic, 509d-511b), Plato accords the highest place to knowledge consisting of pure ideas only. All knowledge involving an empirical element he relegates to the lower section of the higher division of the divided line. Perhaps scientists will readily admit that, even where we have a well-tested 'law of narure', its application in any specific case always involves some inaccuracy and uncertainty.
Plato insists on the constancy and immutability of the intelligible form as a necessary condition for rational knowledge. The form in itself must be seen as immutable; else we cannot base any knowledge on it. That is one side of the coin; the other side, on which Plato insists with equal emphasis, is that no actual, particular instance is ever completely true to the form or is ever free of change and variation. Thus Plato's insistence on the immutability of the intelligible forms is not belied by the facts of evolution as Ernst Mayr maintains. If, historically, theologians and others deployed the concept of essential forms as an objection to the theory of evolution, that does not show that Plato's conception was faulty but that it was misunderstood.
Now to the other specimen. John Gribbin, writing in The Guardian, http://books.guardian.co.uk/review/story/0,12084,1123948,00.html, about his book Science: A History concludes with the following two paragraphs which I quote in full:
"One of the strangest arguments that I have seen put forward – apparently seriously – is that using a word such as 'gravity' to describe the cause of the fall of an apple from a tree is no less mystical than invoking 'God's will' to explain why the apple falls, since the word 'gravity' is just a label. Certainly it is – in the same way that the words 'Beethoven's 5th' are not a piece of music, but only a label which indicates a piece of music, and an alternative label, such as the Morse code symbols for the letter V, could just as easily be used to indicate the same piece of music.
"The word 'gravity' is simply a shorthand exprerssion for the whole suite of ideas incorporated in Newton's Principia and Einstein's general theory of relativity. To a scientist, the word 'gravity' conjures up a rich tapestry of ideas and laws, in the same way that to the conductor of a symphony orchestra the words 'Beethoven's 5th' conjure up a rich musical experience. It is not the label that matters, but the underlying universal law, giving a predictive power to science. And that's why science is real, and objective, in a way that music, or art, can never be."
The argument that the theory of gravity leaves the mystery of one body attracting another where it was is one that I have presented repeatedly in various forms, though I am not conceited enough to think that Mr Gribbin was alluding to or was aware of any of my writings. Let me assure Mr Gribbin that no one advancing such an argument could be stupid enough to mean that the theory of 'gravity' does not explain anything. What we mean is that the whole 'rich tapestry of ideas and laws' does nothing but what he justly says it does; it gives 'a predictive power to science'; it tells us how things work, and that's what makes science so useful (and often so pernicious), but it does not tell us what those things in themselves are. Let me quote here something that I once jotted down in my Scrapbook:
"Are we wiser than Thales? Thales says, 'All things are full of gods. The magnet is alive for it has the power of moving iron.' When we superciliously smile at such a 'childish' thought we should remind ourselves that when we speak of gravitation and inertia and the theory of relativity we are merely evading the problem. We are manipulating useful fictions that pay. But we do not know what makes things move. Thales' dictum does not give us a fiction. The expression is necessarily mythical, for all language involves myth; but it places us face to face with the mystery of what we do not know."
When Mr Gribbin says that "science is real, and objective, in a way that music, or art, can never be", I must say: Begging your pardon, I think it is just the other way round. When I listen to Beethoven's Fifth I live in the music and the music lives in me; the theories and equations of the sciences are serviceable, and though various sciences can advance my life or ruin my life, they have no immediate, direct contact with my inner life. True, for many scientists the scientific quest is a passion, and then that quest is for them life — the quest, the activity, but not its 'objective' results.



If I say that religious dogma and philosophy make a bad mix, perhaps only a few will feel inclined to quarrel with what I say. If I go on to say that science and philosophy make an equally bad, or even – if that is possible – a worse mix, hordes will pick up the readiest weapon to hand to assault me. So be it; I will not be terrorized! I will support the first proposition by a couple of illustrations from one, and the second by a couple of illustrations from two, of the most prominent Plato scholars in the twentieth century.
In his classic Plato: The Man and His Work (1926), A. E. Taylor, speaking of Socrates' life-mission, writes, "His function is simply to impress on all and sundry the misery of the state of ignorance in which they find themselves 'by nature' and the importance of 'coming out of it.' How a man is to come out of this state of nature is not explained anywhere .." (p.28). I find this strange coming from a scholar as immersed in Plato as Taylor was. What could he mean by ascribing to Socrates the thought of a state of ignorance in which we find ourselves 'by nature' when every student of the Socratic discourses can see that Socrates' most unshakable conviction was that the remedy for this state of ignorance is within us, that we have only to look into ourselves, within our own minds, to find the understanding we need? And how could he so confidently assert that how "to come out of this state of nature is not explained anywhere" when we know that Socrates had made it his sole business in life to exhort young and old, foreigner and citizen, to tend their souls, to cultivate virtue, to exercise reason, all of which was, for Socrates, truly one thing and the one way to come out of the state of ignorance?
How could he? Well, in a footnote appended to the words asserting that the way out of this state of nature "is not explained anywhere" Taylor says, "Naturally not. An answer to this question would raise the issue covered in Christian theology by the doctrine of 'grace.' We must not look for an anticipation of Augustine in Hellenic moral philosophy." For all his tremendous scholarship, Taylor misreads Socrates' position because he reads it through Pauline-Augustinian glasses, and so sees 'original sin' at the root of the ignorance that Socrates sought to dispel by reflection, and replaces the gnôthi sauton with 'grace' dispensed by divine will.
Commenting on this first passage from A. E. Taylor has taken more space than I had anticipated and so I will forgo commenting on another passage from the same source. I will merely make the bald statement that, in my view, Taylor's interpretation of the Phaedo is completely vitiated by his reading too much of his own Christianity into the thought of Socrates. I will not defend this audacious contention here, but if I may be permitted this much arrogance I would invite the reader to compare Taylor's treatment in Chapter VIII and mine in "Excursions into the Dialogues of Plato: IV. The Meaning of the Phaedo" (now included in Plato: An Interpretation as chapter 5).
I now go on to the more paradoxical of the two statements I began with: science and philosophy make an equally, or even a worse, mix.
I will illustrate this by looking into Newton's concept of power or force and examining the comments of two latter-day scholars of the highest merit – F. M. Cornford and H. D. P. Lee – on Plato's approach to the concept.
To the scientists' childlike interest in the curiosities of the phenomenal world we owe all the gifts and comforts of our material civilization. I am not a Cynic, am not living in a tub, and do not grudge scientists the gratitude and admiration rightly due to them. But the astounding successes of science in the practical sphere have made, perhaps not the scientists themselves, but the common run of humankind, including the professors of philosophy who should have known better, claim for science what is truly beyond its reach.
In his prefatory note to Republic 528e-530c introducing the study of astronomy, Cornford writes, "Some Pythagoreans called [astronomy] 'Sphaerics,' since it dealt with the motions of the heavenly bodies considered as perfect spheres moving in perfect circles: there was no question of physical forces causing the movements" (p.246).
Desmond Lee, in the Introduction to his translation of the Timaeus and Critias (Penguin Classics) takes Plato to task for assuming that motion needed a force to cause it. "He lived in a world where there were no machines, in which there was little wheeled transport, and in which such concepts as velocity, mass, or acceleration were not and could hardly be understood" (p.12).
Well, I flatly deny that there is anyone on earth who understands 'such concepts as velocity, mass, or acceleration'. These concepts are tools that scientists employ to predict and to manipulate happenings in nature. In support of my bold claim, I will produce no less a witness than Isaac Newton.
Newton bases his Principia on a number of definitions and axioms. Among the definitions we find: "The quantity of force arises from and is measured by a combination of velocity and quantity of matter." Newton speaks of quantity of force and its measurement: not a single word about what force is. Among the axioms we have: "Every body continues in its state of rest or of moving uniformly in the same direction except in so far as it is compelled to change that state by impressed force." The definitions and axioms were neither observable facts nor deducible truths. Their only merit was that they could be worked into formulae that gave fairly correct calculations of the movement of bodies, terrestrial and celestial. The great Newton knew exactly what he was doing. In the Principia he writes: "Hitherto I have not been able to discover the cause of these properties of gravity from phenomena, and I frame no hypotheses." More revealingly, in a letter to Bentley he writes: "That gravity should be innate, inherent, and essential to matter, so that one body may act upon another at a distance through a vacuum … seems to me a great absurdity." (Quoted by Preserved Smith, The Enlightenment, p.47.)
Newton understood well – far better than many professional philosophers — that his great scientific work did not provide answers to philosophical questions. True, Newton indulged in philosophizing of a sort. His philosophy was as bad as his science was good, because in handling philosophical questions he did not do so philosophically but borrowed his views from institutionalized religion without question, but, to his credit, did not mix his science and his philosophy.
I quote at some length the following excerpts from Whitehead's Process and Reality because they convey what I want to say, in the words of someone qualified to speak of Newton as I am not:
"The Timaeus of Plato, and the Scholium of Newton … are the two statements of cosmological theory which have had the chief influence on Western thought. To the modern reader, the Timaeus, considered as a statement of scientific details, is … simply foolish. But what it lacks in superficial detail, it makes up for by its philosophic depth. If it be read as an allegory, it conveys profound truth; whereas the Scholium is an immensely able statement of details which … can within certain limits be thoroughly trusted for the deduction of truths at the same level of abstraction as itself. The penalty of its philosophical deficiency is that the Scholium conveys no hint of the limits of its own application. … It is the office of metaphysics to determine the limits of the applicability of such abstract notions.
"The Scholium betrays its abstractness by affording no hint of that aspect of self-production, of phusis, of natura naturans, which is so prominent in nature. For the Scholium, nature is merely, and completely, there, externally designed and obedient" (Process and Reality, 1929, corrected edition, ed. David Ray Griffin and Donald W. Sherburne, 1978, p.93).
Philosophy and science even when apparently dealing with the same thing, even when they pose questions that superficially seem to be identical, are in fact asking essentially different questions about radically distinct aspects of the world. The failure to distinguish clearly between science and philosophy and to keep them separate is, in my view, a primary source of much bad science and much bad philosophy.

Sunday, January 29, 2006



Prefatory note

On November 11, 2005, one hundred and fifty years will have passed since the death of Sören Kierkegaard at the age of 42. Kierkegaard's philosophy dissertation was entitled On the Concept of Irony with constant reference to Socrates. He may have seen himself as continuing the Socratic mission of freeing people of passively received dogmas and making them turn inwards into themselves. But in this paper I find more contrasts than similarities between these two differently exceptional personalities. I try to bring out this contrast, or rather opposition, by examining Kierkegaard's exposition of his notion of the "teleological suspension of the ethical." But first let us try to get an overview of the intricate relations between their outlooks.

Kierkegaard and Socrates

Greek thought and Hebrew thought do not make a good mix. Christianity of course is such a mix and that is one source, perhaps the major source, of its difficulties. You can either think in Greek terms or in Hebrew terms without experiencing internal discord, but when you try to weld the two together you cannot be true to yourself all the way through; at some point you have either to forget about the rationality of Greek thought or throw overboard the sanctified presuppositions of Hebrew thought. Kierkegaard, like many old and present-day theologians and Christian thinkers, was trapped between the horns of this dilemma, but unlike many who found themselves in that predicament, Kierkegaard was willing to save his skin by sacrificing the rationality.
That is why Kierkegaard, while seeking to emulate Socrates, could not proceed Socratically. Socrates sought to free people of received preconceptions by examining, disentangling, clarifying ideas, by shedding a flood of light. Kierkegaard sought to pull people out of their quiescent, lukewarm acceptance of dogma by shocking them. As Professor William McDonald puts it, "He used irony, parody, satire, humor, and deconstructive techniques in order to make conventionally accepted forms of knowledge and value untenable."(1) But when he made 'conventionally accepted forms of knowledge and value untenable' his intention was not that people should discard them but that they should hold them with heightened fervency. He did not want people to reject dogma but to hold it in 'fear and trembling'.
The title of Chapter II of Kierkegaard's Concluding Unscientific Postscript, "The Subjective Truth; Inwardness; Truth is Subjectivity", sounds so deceptively Socratic that we may be excused if we are shocked by the revelation that the positions of the two men are in fact totally opposed. While both Socrates and Kiekegaard found the proper being of humans in subjectivity, the subjectivity Socrates valued was a subjectivity of reason, its essence was intelligibility, while the subjectivity of Kierkegaard was a subjectivity of feeling, its essence was a state of agitation. He asserts that "passion is the culmination of existence for an existing individual", and again that "passion is also the highest expression of subjectivity."(2)

Kierkegaard's project

Kierkegaard sought to rescue Christians from the tepidness, the superficiality, and the matter-of-fact adherence that is the bane of institutionalized religions. On this point his position was unequivocal: "If one who lives in the midst of Christendom goes up to the house of God, the house of the true God, with the true conception of God in his knowledge, and prays, but prays in a false spirit; and one who lives in an idolatrous community prays with the entire passion of the infinite, although his eyes rest upon the image of an idol: where is there most truth? The one prays in truth to God though he worships an idol; the other prays falsely to the true God, and hence worships in fact an idol."(3)
He wanted to restore individuals to their individuality. Hence his watchword was "become who you are", which we may designate as his version of the Apollonic/Socratic gnôthi sauton.

Kierkegaard and mysticism

Although Kierkegaard saw his work as a continuation of Socrates' mission to free people of thraldom to unexamined preconceptions and received notions, he stopped short of questioning the tenets of Christian theology. His contemporaries may have seen his positions as unorthodox and it pleased him to make a show of his unorthodoxy, perhaps the better to assert his individuality, yet he was too deeply immersed in traditional doctrine to shed away its basic tenets. The unreasonableness of those tenets rather than affording ground for their overthrow was seen as a virtue, heightening the intensity of the sentiment engendered by the desperate, blind grasping at nothingness. This is perhaps more akin to the drug-addict's grasping at the phantom of bliss than to the mystic groping for an undefinable, unfathomable something. The mystic's experience comes closest to pure subjectivity; Kierkegaard's paradoxical faith mars the subjectivity by reaching out towards an unreachable heaven.
With Kierkegaard, in place of the mystic identification with the ultimate source we have a constant assertion of the otherness of the power which constitutes the self. Since Kierkegaardian faith is neither the experience of mystic identification nor the self-evidence of phronetic intelligibility, it has repetitively to be renewed in anxiety, fear, and trembling.

Kierkegaard and existentialism

Kierkegaard's purpose was to shock Christians into revitalizing their faith. It was his representation of the religious experience as an inward passionate anxiety that earned him the title of "father of existentialism" and that led to the re-assertion of the connection between philosophy and life, a connection which had often been lost sight of and which has now once more been obliterated in many professional and academic circles.
Unfortunately, Kierkegaard's emphasis on the inwardness of the spiritual life was clouded and marred by entanglement with Kierkegaard's acceptance of the Christian dogma and by the consequent insistence on the absurdity and paradoxicality of faith. I suggest that, if Kierkegaard could have broken free of the fetters of dogma, he would have arrived at a purer conception of faith as the immediacy of spiritual inwardness.

Kierkegaard and dogma

The assertion of the absolute transcendence of God was pivotal to Kierkegaard's position, but what is that but to equate God with the area of our ignorance? If God is what I don't know and can never know, then what is he to me? At most the illusion of somehow knowing something that I know I don't know. And it is this illusion that is meant to give us the intense subjective feeling of knowing what is unknown and unknowable: the height of absurdity, but then absurdity is just what Kierkegaard was after. "Without risk there is no faith. Faith is precisely the contradiction between the infinite passion of the individual's inwardness and the objective uncertainty." (4)
In Professor McDonald's succinct formulation, "Christian faith, for Kierkegaard, is not a matter of learning dogma by rote. It is a matter of the individual repeatedly renewing h/er passionate subjective relationship to an object which can never be known, but only believed in. The belief is offensive to reason, since it only exists in the face of the absurd (the paradox of the eternal, immortal, infinite God being incarnated in time as a finite mortal)."(5) Let us try to understand what is supposed to lie outside the sphere of understanding. Christian faith, we are told, is a matter of a passionate subjective relationship to an object which can never be known: yet that which 'can never be known' is distinctly presented in that closing parenthetical clause: the eternal, infinite God incarnated in time as a finite mortal. All of Kierkegaard's circuitous subterfuges end in the requirement to embrace unquestioningly this absurdity not inspite of its absurdity but precisely because of its absurdity. Kierkegaard never wanted to free us of dogma: he was opposed to 'learning dogma by rote' but he was all for imbibing dogma with our eyes wide open.

The teleological suspension of the ethical

To give some substance to my generalities I will comment briefly on Kierkegard's examination in Fear and Trembling of the question "Is There Such a Thing as a Teleological Suspension of the Ethical?"(6)
In advancing the notion of the "teleological suspension of the ethical" Kierkegaard's immediate target was the refutation of Hegelianism. Following the plan he devised for that purpose, Kierkegaard (in the persona of Johannes de Silentio) starts from Hegel's definition of the ethical as the universal and of the single individual as a "moral form of evil", and proceeds to show that, on these terms, Hegel had to condemn Abraham as a murderer. This conclusion would, according to Kierkegaard, be absurd. Why absurd? Because 'correct' Christian doctrine tells us to revere Abraham as the "father of faith". We have to choose between Hegelian rationalism and justifying Abraham by faith. In his treatment of this question, Kierkegaard provides a most flagrant example of the utter sottishmess we can fall into when we allow ourselves to be enslaved by a given theology.
After distinguishing clearly between the tragic acts of Agamemnon in sacrificing his daughter, Jephthah, also sacrificing his daughter, and Brutus, ordering the execution of his son, on the one hand, and Abraham's sacrificing his son, on the other hand, and after arguing that Agamemnon, Jephthah, and Brutus, all remain 'within the ethical' and that there is no 'teleological suspension of the ethical' in their case, he goes on to justify the act of Abraham. (Parenthetically I would say that ranging Jephthah along with Agamemnon and Brutus as a tragic hero is an enormity: I cannot see how Jephthah can be said to remain 'within the ethical',(7) but I will not go out of my way to discuss this point at length.)
Kierkegaard asks, "Why then did Abraham do it?", and he answers, "For God's sake and (in complete identity with this) for his own sake. He did it for God's sake because God required this proof of his faith; for his own sake he did it in order that he might furnish the proof." I must confess I find no sense in this. Why would God 'require this proof of Abraham's faith'? Could he not find a less barbarous test? And if he could not, and allowing that his omniscience failed him in just this one instance, could he not opt for giving the man the benefit of the doubt instead of putting him to this cruel test? And why would Abraham find it so important to furnish the proof? To find favour in the eyes of God? To earn the rewards of subservient obedience? Prometheus proved himself nobler than Zeus; why could not Abraham aspire to that kind of nobility?
Kierkegaard continues, "Here is evident the necessity of a new category if one would understand Abraham. Such a relationship to the deity paganism did not know. The tragic hero does not enter into any private relationship with the deity, but for him the ethical is the divine …" He concludes: "The story of Abraham contains therefore a teleological suspension of the ethical. As the individual he became higher than the universal: this is the paradox which does not permit of mediation." And this is faith as Kierkegaard understands it, an absurd paradox or a paradoxical absurdity.
The final conclusion of Kierkegaard's discussion of the teleological suspension of the ethical is that faith transcends the ethical. Here we find the final and ineradicable contradiction between the position of Kierkegaard and that of Socrates. In the Euthyphro Socrates poses the question: Is what is righteous righteous because it is favoured by the gods or is it favoured by the gods because it is righteous? Although the Euthyphro does not spell it out, the Socratic answer rings loud and clear in the works of Plato as a whole and finds its clearest expression in the Republic: the Idea of the Good is the fount of all reality, all truth, and all value.
Kierkegaard advances the category of the 'religious' as a new category, a category higher than the ethical, not known to the Greeks or to Hegel. In fact it is nothing but the naïve 'piety' of the soothsayer Euthyphro that Socrates finds unsatisfactory, piety as that which is pleasing to the gods.

Concluding remarks

Sin and guilt loom large in Kierkegaard's thought. It is the sense of sin that instils in us the idea of the transcendent God towards whom we are 'always in the wrong', and it is the anxiety arising from our consciousness of guilt that impels us to seek salvation by the absurdity of faith.
Kierkegaard holds that the life-work which God judges in a person is that person's fulfilment of the task of becoming a true self. This would constitute a very fine philosophy indeed – and it has in fact been a source of inspiration to many(8) – except that for Kierkegaard that fulfilment could only be achieved through that necessarily absurd faith which alone secured salvation.
Kierkegaard's theoretical position was largely a reaction against Hegelianism. Against Hegel's hubristic logicalism Kierkegaard set up the irrationality of a paradoxical faith. Saner than either was Socrates' rationalism that valued understanding freed of the illusion of knowledge. Kierkegaard discovered the deceptiveness of the dream that promised to lead humanity to its highest goals (however defined) through scientific knowledge. Had he been more consistently Socratic he might have spared us something of the scientism that in our day poses as the sole way to understanding.

(1) McDonald, William, "Søren Kierkegaard", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2005 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = .
(2) Concluding Unscientific Postscript, translated by David F. Swenson and Walter Lowrie, Princeton, 1944.
(3) Concluding Unscientific Postscript.
(4) Concluding Unscientific Postscript.
(5) McDonald, William, "Søren Kierkegaard", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2005 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = .
(6) "Is There Such a Thing as a Teleological Suspension of the Ethical?" (reproduced in Approaches to the Philosophy of Religion, edd. Daniel J. Bronstein and Harold M. Schulweis, New York, 1954).
(7) See Book of Judges, 11.
(8) See, for instance, Richard Schain, In Love With Eternity, 2005, passim.


D. R. Khashaba
(This article appeared first in the Giordano Bruno site – www.giordanobruno.info – in February 2005, and subsequently in Philosophy Pathways.)

It is not my intention to give an exposition of Bruno's thought. That is a task that I willingly leave to those who are better equipped to perform it. Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) was a lover of myth, allegory, and symbol, and knew fully well the power of those magical wands to reveal and illumine where discursive thought hid and obscured. In this short note I treat of Bruno himself as an emblem of the mystic paths that lead to the inner reality of our being.
Bruno was the epitome of his age, an age of intellectual and spiritual ferment, an age when science and mysticism walked hand in hand, an age which saw the birth of humanism. He is a true paradigm of the whole human being that our contemporary fractured and fragmented humanity stands badly in need of — a fractured and fragmented humanity where religion is indissolubly wedded to dogmatism and superstition and where rationality is blindly bound to soulless physicalism.
Yet Bruno has not yet received the attention that his profundity and originality make his rightful due; the reason being that he is in the unenviable position of his thought being opposed simultaneously to religious dogmatism and scientistic materialism — the two dominant trends that polarize modern culture and condemn it to one-sidedness and insularity.
This is compounded by the difficulties of Bruno's style of writing. Giorgio de Santillana, who gives a balanced and sympathetic outline of Bruno's thought in The Age of Adventure (1956), writes, "He is not one of those minds which shed a pure and equable light to reveal a new landscape of ideas; with the fire of his temperament there went a good deal of smoke" (p.244).
In my view, what might be seen as the lack of clear-cut distinctness in Bruno's thought should be appreciated as a merit rather than denigrated as a defect. The fecund nebulosity of his thought poses a wholesome challenge and offers a corrective to the shallowness and insipidity of our thoughtless religiosity and our insightless scientism at once. Plato found that the profoundest philosophical insights are essentially ineffable and can only be expressed in myth and allegory. Our learned scholars mutilate Plato's best insights when they exert themselves to force his thought into well-defined theories and fixed doctrines. In the myth of Actaeon in Bruno's Heroici Furori (Heroic Exaltations) we have a profounder and more truthful insight into the living substance of Platonism expressed symbolically and allegorically.
Giordano Bruno was a living incarnation of the pristine ideal of humanism – which, alas!, through various metamorphoses, has been drained of its true essence by being splintered into the diverse, mutually contradictory present-day 'humanisms' that reflect the fragmentation of modern humanity. Today Secular Humanism murders the soul of humanism while its antithesis, Christian Humanism, drags the mind back into the stranglehold of unquestioning dogmatism and superstition. It is this split that lends credence to the spurious opposition of faith and reason which is nowadays regarded as an irreconcilable Either-Or, while the reconcilition is ready to hand if only we are willing to go back to the wholeness of the perennial philosophy of which Bruno's philosophy – as much as Plato's or Plotinus's or Spinoza's – is an original, creative expression.
Bruno's humanism is evident equally in his siding with Erasmus in his defence of free will and in his opposition to Martin Luther's 'pecca fortiter'. Bruno would certainly have supported Pelagius against Augustine.
In his exchanges with the Inquisition during his long drawn-out trial, he did not hedge, dissemble, or prevaricate. While hoping to vindicate his position as consistent with faith in the divinity (goodness and intelligence) of ultimate Reality, he was not intimidated by the imminent threat of death into redacting his views to conform to accepted doctrine. He was trying to make the Inquisition appreciate that his position was rational and religiously sound, not to convince them that he conformed to established doctrine. This was as honest as Socrates' attempt to make his judges understand that he believed in God according to his lights. Throughout the proceedings, he sought to vindicate himself without compromising his integrity. But when it came to the brunt, he refused to submit. He chose to die rather than be false to his inner light.
Bruno's insistence that the views he expounded were meant 'strictly on the philosophical plane' implies that the doctrines formulated by the Church were no more than a 'popular' version that did no harm when taken as such but that should not preclude a profounder philosophical understanding.
De Santillana writes, "One cannot but respect the scrupulousness of the Inquisition, which took eight years to make up its mind that the doctrine, however acceptable its religious content, could not be reconciled with dogma" (op. cit., p.250). But then, that is just the point. Bruno had no desire to disturb the belief of simple folk in dogma which gave them comfort. But he would not allow such dogma to block philosophical probing for a profounder understanding.
The Inquisition could not accept such a live-and-let-live policy. Can we? Unless at least the more intelligent members of society understand and acknowledge unequivocally that such dogma is no more than myth and must in no way be taken as literal truth and that intelligent persons are not only allowed to, but are required to, criticize and disclose the error of such dogma and introduce new formulations making for a better understanding — unless the intelligent sector of society openly and firmly adopt that attitude, then such dogma will be an instrument of bondage and a means of exploitation and extortion. We hardly need any explication or illustration of the truth of this. Our world is boiling and seething with the collision of opposed creeds and dogmata.
Yet, we cannot simply shove aside all myth and live in a world governed by cold calculations of expediency and utility, a world void of ultimate principles and absolute values. We need the symbolism, the inspirational whisperings of myth and allegory, of poetry and fiction, to keep us alive to the reality of the inner fount of our true being and true worth, and we need the free untrammelled speculative activity of intelligence without which those life-giving myths turn into fossilized and fossilizing superstitions. That is why we need the spirit and the message of Giordano Bruno to help us retrieve our lost human integrity.
In the dialogue de l'Infinito Universo e Mondi (of the Infinity of the Universe and of the Worlds) we read of "the earth, our divine mother who has borne us and nourished us and at last will take us back into her bosom." Would we not be less likely to pollute and damage our environment if we could think in those terms?
The ignorance, prejudice, and hatred that Bruno had to confront in his lifetime are still hounding his memory. It seems that there are many quarters where it is felt that Bruno's call for humans to look for truth and reality within their own souls still threatens empires of dogmatic creeds and fossilized doctrines. As evidence of this, I will here review briefly an article, "The Folly of Giordano Bruno", by Professor W. Pogge of Ohio State University, (http://www.setileague.org/editor/brunoalt.htm), which sadly shows little interest in and no understanding of Bruno's seminal ideas and enlightening approach, but concentrates instead on denigrating the man and absolving the Church of blame! That Pogge is an Astronomist may perhaps explain the curious slant of his article but it cannot excuse the vituperative ire with which he handles his subject — as if Professor Pogge were convinced that Bruno deserved to be burned for failing to make much of a contribution to Astronomy!
Professor Pogge chooses as motto for his article the following words of Paul Valery: "The folly of mistaking paradox for a discovery, a metaphor for proof, a torrent of varbiage for a spring of capital truths, and oneself for an oracle, is inborn in us." This is revealing. Those who seek understanding outside their own minds, whether in the evidence of the senses or in the dictates of extraneous authority do not have eyes for the inner realities of the soul. It is no wonder that Professor Pogge finds Bruno's writings are "of only academic interest to us today". Eternal realities and perennial insights that can only spring from the founts of the creative mind and can only be conveyed in myth and symbol cannot be beheld by those who do not have eyes for the invisible.
Professor Pogge is keen on 'correcting' the "popular accounts" which say that Bruno was condemned for his Copernicanism and portray him "as a martyr to free thought". He affirms that "we do not actually know the exact grounds of his conviction on charges of heresy." Further on he suggests that "the Church's complaint with Bruno was theological not astronomical." In other words, he was condemned because he held views different from those held by the Church and considered it his duty to stand by what he saw as the truth. If that doesn't make one "a martyr to free thought", what does?
Pogge goes to great lengths to argue that Bruno's work "had little to do with astronomy"; that he was not condemned for his Copernicanism; that the Church did not express an official opinion on Copernicanism until after Bruno's death. Which is all beside the point!
Pogge's principal objection to Bruno is directed to his Pantheism, which Pogge construes as opposing "the Chrch's emphasis on spiritualism with an unapologetic and all-encompassing materialism." Pogge thus equates Pantheism with Materialism! I only wish it were so: we could then perhaps hope that materialists would see the spiritual reality underlying and upholding all matter.
The bulk of the rest of Pogge's article is devoted to maintaining that Bruno's "peregrinations around Europe … had less to do with his being hounded by the Inquisition as it did with his rather difficult personality." He exerts himself to blacken Bruno's character and concludes: "In many ways, Bruno thrust himself into the flames that rose into the winter skies of the Campo di Fiori on the 17th day of February in 1600." I cannot help sensing in the tone of this sentence a touch of malicious glee!


D. R. Khashaba
[Appeared first in Philosophy Pathways, http://www.shef.ac.uk/~ptpdlp/newsletter/ ]

The battle raging between creationists and evolutionists is probably the one that raises the greatest hubbub on the intellectual front at present. Though, as will presently appear, I do not regard this as a properly philosophical issue, still I think there is call for philosophers to clear some of the confusions and misuderstandings that envelop the battleground.
I maintain that philosophy, exercising pure reason, cannot give us knowledge about the objective world. Socrates, the first thinker to realize this clearly, decisively renounced all investigation into physis. He was concerned solely with the ideas and ideals that constitute our specifically human life. Subsequent philosophers, beginning with Plato, in various degrees obscured or lost sight of this great Socratic insight, and in consequence embroiled philosophy in many needless difficulties and controversies. (Among moderns it was Kant, in his critical philosophy, who revived the Socratic insight, with some complications, but his successors again lost it with a vengeance.) That's why I say that the evolutionist-creationist controversy is not properly a philosophical problem.
Again I say that the advocates of religion are ill-advised to be drawn into the controversy. Creationism is a theory relating to the objective world and as such it is a scientific theory — good or bad, reconcilable or irreconcilable with other theories: these are questions to be resolved by the methods of science, and what might be regarded as established truth today may be reversed tomorrow, and in no case will that have any bearing on questions of value. For let us grant the creationists that we could prove by impeccable scientific methods that the world was created by a personal god. Here is a theory, as mad and as good as any other: Before the Big Bang there was another universe (why not?) that had culminated in the evolution (let's have the best of both worlds) of an all-powerful god. That god programmed a terramicro chip to produce the Big Bang and all that followed it up to the scribbling of these words of mine. (I know this is not only nonsense but bad nonsense to boot; someone more clever than I can surely produce a more plausible version.)
Suppose this theory were established by rigorous scientific methods as true. Must I then adore, honour or admire that god? No; I would cry in his face, Damn you for all the evil and all the suffering you have put into your scheme of things. I would accept the facts as facts but that would have no bearing on my ideals and values.
Yet there is no comfort here for the scientific camp. For just as the empirical vindication of the personal god would not give him any claim on my respect, so the discovery of the minutest details of the process by which the world has come to be would give us no understanding of that world, whether brought about by a personal fiat or an impersonal evolution.
But here we have to stop for a lexical digression. The words 'knowledge' and 'understanding' are very troublesome. They both refer to two radically different things, two totally different realms of our mental life; let us call them the objective and the subjective. The ideal solution would be to appropriate one of the terms to each of the two distinct realms. Sounds simple. The trouble is: (1) there is no consensus and there has never been; (2) more seriously, enthusiasts for the objective kind simply deny the existence of the other kind and lay claim to both terms. So that when we ask, Does the genome project give us knowledge of a human being?, they answer, Yes; and when we ask, Does it give us understanding of a human being?, again they answer, Yes. I would say that the genome project gives us the knowledge that (hopefully) may enable us to cure or prevent diseases, to resolve forensic mysteries, perhaps to reproduce Hitlers, Pol Pots, and Ariel Sharons at will, but it does not give us the insight necessary to put an end to the evil of such monsters. Now take whichever word you like for the one kind and leave me the other word for the other kind. (See my "Knowledge and Understanding".)
When Richard Dawkins is challenged by creationists to "give an example of a genetic mutation or an evolutionary process which can be seen to increase the information in the genome" he writes a full-length article about 'information' as technically defined by the American engineer Claude Shannon in 1948. ("The Information Challenge" by Richard Dawkins, http://www.skeptics.com.au/journal/dawkins1.htm ) That technical definition is no doubt a very good and very fruitful definition when it is used for what it was devised for. But is it the only possible definition of the term? Does it give the only valid meaning of the term? In fact, in line with all scientific thinking, it is averse to all meaning and meaningfulness. It seizes on an extraneous feature of the object of inquiry, symbolizes it, quantifies it, drains it of all life and all meaning, and lives happily with its parched shell.
I am not here to defend the imbecilities of 'creationism', but if the creationists' challenge meant to affirm that no description of any genetic mutation or evolutionary process can give us an understanding of, say, vision or consciousness, I would say that Dawkins has failed to meet the challenge. If there were no intelligence and creativity (as distinct from personal creation) at the heart of nature, then I cannot see how the mere putting together of bits and bytes – even DNA bits and bytes – could produce our feelings and thoughts.
In other words, it is right that evolutionists should have our attentive and respectful ear when they describe, step by step, how consciousness came about, but when they tell us that is all there is to consciousness, we must object to a reductionism that bars our intelligence from looking into an entire realm of being.
But while I would thus agree with, say, Stephen Jay Gould that science should limit itself to studying the natural world, I would not agree with him in relegating the study of meanings and values to religion. If asked, Why not?, I would pose two questions in response: (1) Shall we accept the dogmatic dictates of religion on trust, putting our reason to sleep? (2) What about the conflicting claims of different religions? I hold that our worth as human beings resides in our reason and spirituality. So while, in opposition to religion, I maintain that it would undermine our dignity to accept anything as lying outside the jurisdiction of reason, in opposition to scienticism, I maintain that our proper worth as human beings resides in the ideas, ideals and dreams that are creations of the mind and that cannot be reduced to the givennesses of the phenomenal world. It is only in a philosophy that jealously guards its independence of science that we can find the combination of reason and spirituality that is necessary for a whole human life.
All attempts at reconciling science and religion or science and philosophy are equally misguided, though for different reasons. Philosophy is not equipped to deal with facts and science is not equipped to deal with meanings and values. (I resist a temptation to digress on a discussion of social sciences and psychology.) But religion cannot avoid making factual claims. To attempt any reconciliation with science means submitting itself to the jurisdiction of scientific methods and scientific criteria, and that will always be damaging to the dogmatic claims of religion. The best policy for adherents of religion would be to maintain that their revealed truths are not amenable to scrutiny, which amounts to a deliberate choice of stupidity. All apologetics are doubly stupid because while committed in principle to mindlessness they venture on a contest that can only be fought with the weapons of intelligence.
Finally, the creationist-evolutionist dispute amounts to the question: Do we have to thank God or Nature for what we are?, and in arbitrating between the two parties philosophy should declare that as long as the question is posed in that form, we can never arrive at a satisfactory answer. It is only Spinoza's unified God-or-Nature that can account for the whole that we are. And of that whole, science is concerned with the natural dimension, philosophy with the divine dimension – or, to resort once again to Spinoza's language, science has to do with natura naturata and philosophy with natura naturans.


D. R. Khashaba

Soon the term ‘personal’ in the expression ‘personal computer’ may become ambiguous. So far it has had the same meaning as in 'my personal agenda' or 'my personal locker'. But soon it may also have the same meaning as in 'Christians believe in a personal God'. Computers are threatening to become persons. Is that possible? What would be the philosophical implications? In what follows I do not seek to provide answers to these questions but to offer some thoughts that may help us think somewhat less confusedly when considering such questions.
Computers, as we have them today, may be said to be instruments of thought. Perhaps most people would accept this statement without demur. I mean by this that computers are aids to and extensions of our thinking in the same way as a screw-driver is an extension of my hand. The screw-driver cannot turn the screw; my hand alone cannot; supplemented by the screw-driver it can. But are computers thinking instruments? Are they likely to become at any future time instruments capable of autonomous thought?
In an interview with Jeremy Webb published in the NEW SCIENTIST, 19 August 2000, Igor Aleksander, author of How to Build a Mind (Wedenfeld & Nicholson), says, "When they don't understand something engineers try to build it. But there is an intended frisson in that you might expect to be able to build a brain, but not a mind, whereas I'm arguing that a mind is an emergent property of brains one might build." [My quotations are from the electronic version of the interview for which I am indebted to the PhilosophyNews website.]
There are two issues here. (1) If we make a mind, by putting bits and pieces together, does that mean we understand what a mind is? (2) If we make a thinking computer, a computer with a mind, we may perhaps reasonably speak of that mind as an emergent property of the man-made brain, but what should we then understand by that? I believe that there we stand in danger of putting a perniciously wrong interpretation on our statement. (As these two problems substantially overlap and intertwine, I have not, in what follows, tried to package them out neatly.)
Scientists are happy to say they understand something when they know how it works or, better still, how to make it work. That may be one legitimate use of the word 'understand', but there is another sense of the word, a deeper one: I do not understand a gesture of love, a kind word, a smile, by analyzing it, but by feeling it. Maybe we can reduce a smile to chemical, neural, etc., analyses. But we lose much if we stop at that, thinking that we have fathomed the mystery.
The fundamental error of naturalism (materialism) is that it seeks to – and believes that it can – explain the realities of immediate experience in terms of objective actualities, which are the staple food of the 'exact' sciences. We are in danger of believing ourselves, becoming confirmed reductionists, and being blinded for ever to the mystery, which is all the reality. We would then be things, clever things, living among things, but would no longer be persons. That would be the end of all poetry and genuine art.
A man-made brain that can think and act autonomously would not provide an argument for reductionism. A laboratory-made organism does not prove that life is nothing but a combination of chemical elements. A poem is a collection of words but its reality is not reducible to the words that constitute its body. Emergence must be understood in the light of the principle of creativity, that all process is creative and engenders a reality that is not reducible to the material out of which it developed.
We should not speak of 'the mind and the brain'. Rather, in the same way as Spinoza spoke of 'God-or-Nature' we should speak of 'the-mind-or-the-brain' as one whole inseparable reality. The physiological brain is not the mind. It is only the brain-in-action and in unison with the whole body that is mind. That is the element of truth in the theory of the identity of mind and brain, but when the identity is taken in a reductionist sense, when we say that the mind is nothing but the brain, we lose sight of reality. We also err if we think of the mind and the brain as two entities rather than two concepts.
The distinction of mind and brain, like all ideal distinctions, is a fiction, necessary for theoretical thinking, which, if taken as final, breeds error. Either concept taken alone is a mere abstraction; either taken separately for the whole involves falsehood.
In the New Scientist interview, Aleksander says of his Magnus, "It learns what [various objects] look like. It has an internal depiction of what these things look like so when I say cup, it would visualise internally a cup. … It produces images on a screen. And these images tell us if it's imagining properly or not." When I tell a computer to 'imagine' something and it produces the required image, that shows that it has the capacity to put together various elements to produce an image, and there is nothing to prevent us calling that imagining, but that does not tell us that the computer has subjectivity. I am not arguing against the possibility that at some point computers may attain subjectivity. My point here simply is that when we use a word like 'imagine' we should be clear as to what exactly we are speaking of.
To mimic purposive action proves nothing, shows nothing. The mystery is in initiating the action, in the will, which is a creative act. Likewise instinctive action in animals or insects proves nothing. We do not know what goes on in a bee's head, or in God's head when directing the bee, but I know what goes on in my head, and that is what no reductionist analysis can explain. Subjective experience, the mind in action, creative intelligence, is the one reality we know immediately.
So, if and when (and it may well be more a question of when than if) we make a computer that is completely autonomous, we will not thereby have usurped the throne of God. We will only have prodded 'God or Nature' (to resort once more to Spinoza's seminal phrase) to make anew, in a shorter time, what It had made before more leisurely. But if the new Phronetes, or whatever its parents may christen it, is completely predictable in its doings, then we will not have really made anything new. It will still be a machine. Only if it is capable of creativity can we say that we have induced God to give us a new sister or brother, not essentially different from one who may any day come to visit us from some nearby or far away solar system.

Saturday, January 28, 2006



The 12th February 2004 marks the bicentenary of the death of Immanuel Kant, who may justly be regarded as an incarnation of the Enlightenment. Were Kant to come back into our world today, how would he view what has become of the promise of that glorious movement?
In 1784 Kant gave an answer to the question "What is Enlightenment?" In giving that answer Kant was in the first place concerned to distinguish between the practical need to obey the laws and institutions of society, necessary for maintaining peace and stability, on the one hand, and the freedom of thought, the right of the individual to question and criticize those very laws and institutions in public, absolutely necessary for human progress, on the other hand. Most of what Kant says in that context may now be of historical interest only (if we leave out of account those areas of the world where freedom of thought is still anathema). But at one point Kant draws a seminal distinction between an age of enlightenment and an enlightened age.
"If we are asked, Do we now live in an enligtened age?, the answer is: No, but we do live in an age of enlightenment. As things now stand, we still have a long way to go before men can be or can easily become capable of correctly using their own reason in religious matters with assurance, without outside guidance. But we do have clear indications that the way is now being cleared for men to work freely in this direction, and that the obstacles to general enlightenment, to man's emergence from his self-imposed immaturity, are gradually becoming fewer."
Perhaps, writing at a time when intellectual Europe was living in the euphoria of the ideals of freedom and rationalism, Kant was over-optimistic. Yet he was clear-sighted and perceptive enough to realize that, much as it was gratifying to see the good work accomplished by the great British, French, and German thinkers, and the liberalizing reforms introduced by Frederick the Great (to whom Kant's article paid deserved homage), the fulfilment of an enlightened age was a far-off goal.
During the twentieth century the hopes and dreams that were generated in the preceding two centuries were dissipated. Today, two hundred years after Kant departed our world, we cast a look on the condition of humankind, a humankind that, by the lights of eighteenth-century enlightenment and nineteenth-century progressivism, should by now have become united in peace, goodwill, and prosperity — and what do we see? It is hardly necessary to give an account: intolerance, conflict, violence, poverty, and disease not only reign in the vast backward regions but are also evident in what might be termed the bright spots of the advanced world.
But bad as it is that we have failed to make good on the promise, it is a far worse calamity that we seem to have lost the beacon that signals the way. During the twentieth century mainstream philosophy lost its bearings. Seduced by the spectacular theoretical and practical successes of the objective sciences into thinking that the methods and criteria of those sciences were the only means to truth, philosophers sought to apply those same methods and criteria to questions relating to the meaning of life and the values that give meaning to life. Philosophy, especially the Analytical species prevalent in the English-speaking world, was broken up into specialized disciplines and fragmented into particular problems, all swayed and impregnated by scientism, reductionism, and relativism. All questions of meaning and value were consigned to the rubbish heap of 'metaphysical nonsense'.
On the other hand, religion, seemingly the only remaining shelter for meanings and values, continued to tether these meanings and values to irrational beliefs that enslave the mind and play a divisive role between peoples. Humanity was thus left to the mercy of the Scylla of amoral science and technology on the one hand and the Charybdis of dogmatic religion on the other hand. The option we were offered was: either science and no values or values bound up with what Kant called self-imposed immaturity.
The ruinous abdication by philosophy of its rightful domain is the consequence of the oblivion of philosophers to a great insight first beheld clearly by Socrates and re-affirmed by Kant as by no other philosopher. Science, concerned solely and exclusively with objective existents, cannot give answers to questions about meanings and values. Only ideas engendered by the mind and to be found nowhere but in the mind (Socrates), only the pure transcendental forms supplied by reason (Kant), can secure the ideals and values and put us in touch with the realities that constitute our moral and spiritual life. Twenty-four centuries after Socrates, two centuries after Kant, we badly need to re-learn the lesson.

Kant's "Beantwortung der Frage: Was ist Aufklärung?" was published in the Berlinische Monatschrift for December 1784. An English translation can be accessed at: http://www.english.upenn.edu/~mgamer/Etexts/kant.html


D. R. Khashaba
[Appeared first in Philosophy Pathways, http://www.shef.ac.uk/~ptpdlp/newsletter/ ]

"I think, therefore I am", said Descartes. Why "therefore"? As if my being could be in doubt and needed proof, whereas my being – and specifically my being as a self-conscious mind – is the most evident reality for my self. And if Descartes thought his Cogito proved more than the reality of the immediate awareness of our being, then the conclusion was not adequately grounded.
But Descartes was not really interested in establishing that conclusion. He was using the Cogito as a model of the axiomatic evidence that should characterize all trustworthy reasoning. Yet that – the criterion of clear and distinct ideas as a test of truth – was nothing new; it had always been the standard proceeding of mathematics. What was new and what spread and seeped into the philosophical thought of the following centuries and vitiated it was the implied split between the I that thinks and the I that is, as if the thinking I were one thing and my being another. Whereas, as a knowing being, my knowing is my being and my being is my knowing.
The split implicit in the Cogito was a twin to Descartes' explicit and better-advertised bifurcation of mind and body, and, in my view, was no less damaging. I hold that all the fruitless travail of modern philosophers with the quandaries of self-body, mind-brain, and the like, springs from our taking these distinctions for more than working fictions. To think, we have to break up a whole into distinct aspects – substance-attribute, subject-object, knower-known, etc. – but to take these aspects as having any reality apart from the whole is to be deluded and to fall into endless error.
As if the Cartesian double-split between mind and body and between knower and object known were not bad enough, the British Empiricists thought that the objectively given is all we need to bother about. Rationalists and Empiricists thus unwittingly joined hands in perpetrating the mind-body problem which I see as a pseudo-problem. While Empiricists, if they concede to mind any kind of being at all, see it as an epiphenomenon that we can simply disregard, Rationalists having split the integral act of knowledge into knower and object known, forgetting their own edict of separation, try to see the knower as an object.
Now neuroscientists, philosophers of mind, and psychologists are in a flurry looking for the mind (or consciousness or the soul or whatever). I believe they will continue to labour in vain so long as they fail to realize that our mind is our reality, and that it is a reality that is not amenable to study by the methods of the natural sciences.
To speak of consciousness as a phenomenon is already to have gone astray. We can surely study the phenomena of consciousness by scientific methods, but the phenomena of consciousness are not consciousness.
Consciousness gives rise to the phenomena of consciousness but transcends those phenomena. It is meaningless to ask, What is consciousness?, as if we could define consciousness in terms either of what is not consciousness or of the content of consciousness. It is meaningless to ask, What am I? [= what is a person?], for, except in a biographical intent, I am not definable in terms of the present content of my experience (let alone of my physical being) or in terms of what I was or what I will be: I am just this moment of living intelligence that utters the I.
Those who speak of mind as a negligible epiphenomenon do so because they proceed from the presupposition that only what is objectively given is 'real'. But it is the nature of mind not to be an object: yet that makes it not less but more real, if we may be permitted to speak in this manner. That is why I insist that we have to make a radical distinction between the meaning of reality and the meaning of existence.
In my philosophy what exists (what is given) is not real, and what is real does not exist: but there is nothing existing that does not secure its existence in reality, and there is no reality that is not actualized in some manner of existence. These are two dimensions of being, without which nothing could be. (This condensed statement necessarily sounds enigmatic, but it is not intended to be paradoxical or to mystify; it only sounds enigmatic because in my terminology ‘reality’ and ‘existence’ have special senses which I find it necessary to distinguish. See Let Us Philosophize, Bk. Two, ch. 2, "Dimensions of Reality".)
So to the question, Can science solve the puzzle of consciousness?, my answer is, Science cannot. Does that mean that the puzzle will remain unsolved? No, for in fact there is no puzzle. Science creates the puzzle by trying to turn mind into what is not mind. Once we realize that mind is mind and nothing else, the problem vanishes. It is often asserted that the problem is a modern one, but I think it is the same problem that lay at the base of what Plato called the Battle of the Gods and the Giants, or of Idealists and Materialists. (Sophist, 245e ff.) Idealists seek reality in the verities of the mind. Materialists think there is nothing beside what could be observed objectively.
Jerry Fodor in a review of Joseph LeDoux's Synaptic Self (Times Literary Supplement, May 17 2002) finds fault with LeDoux's work and with much current neuroscience in that "the models of the brain [they are] building are designed to implement a cognitive psychology that nobody with any sense has believed for decades." I think that the trouble goes much deeper. Fodor rightly maintains that the question, "What makes us what we are?", interpreted in terms of the philosophical problem of personal identity, "isn’t one that it would be reasonable to expect brain science to answer." But are there any philosophical questions that brain science – or any science, including 'cognitive science' - can answer?
Fodor suggests that the question: "What is going on in your brain when you think about what is going on in the world and decide what you are going to do about it?" is the "big question" that neuroscience should address. The question thus formulated may possibly outline a good – or the best – programme of research for that science. But that research, however fruitful, will not give us an answer to the parallel philosophical question: "What goes on in your mind when etc., etc.?" The answer to this latter question can only be in terms of ideas, not in terms of descriptions of observable and measurable phenomena and processes. The mind (consciousness) is not an object amenable to scientific study, but is a dimension of being that can only be understood by a philosophy that recognizes its radical difference from objective science.
To express my position bluntly: I believe that thinking and neurological events pertain to two distinct and incommensurable dimensions of the one, whole, mind-body thing we call a person. Our subjective life is a reality not reducible to brain structure or brain processes. No knowledge gained in neuroscience or in genetics, however great, can help advance our understanding of the mind or the human being any more than advances in, say, astrophysics can. All science deals with phenomena and processes extraneous to the quite distinct world of ideas, ideals and values that constitute the reality of the mind and the specifically human realm, which is the concern of philosophy.
On the other hand, I think that what is wrong with cognitive science is that it hovers in a no-man's-land between philosophy and science. It can either be good as science, raising questions about observable phenomena and processes, or good as philosophy, raising questions about meanings and values, but by trying to be both it gets lost in a maze of unsolvable riddles. Unless we recognize the radical difference between philosophy and science, both our science and our philosophy will continue to suffer.
What is the alternative to the vain attempt to get to the mind through the brain? Is it the view that the mind is a 'soul-stuff' of some sort? The trouble lies in the word 'stuff': however much we refine that stuff, as long as it is regarded as something objective, it will fare no better than the brain. Why don't we accept the simple solution that stares us in the face — that mind is in fact the reality we know best and most immediately? Or, as I would rather say, that mind is the only reality we know and that it cannot be reduced to anything else? And we lose nothing by this: we would still have our neuroscience that can go on progressing indefinitely and we would still have all the objective truths we have ever had or can ever have; only we shall have to acknowledge that these will never explain the mind any more than any facts can ever explain the colour of a single flower.
We can perhaps say that brains become minds; or, to put it in a deservedly more flowery manner, brains flower into minds. But I will not say that brains generate minds. Brains become minds in a creative move, just as all becoming is creative, just as the coming into being of a sonnet or a symphony is a creative move. Earth and water and air and sun become a red rose, but the colour and the fragrance of the rose are realities in their own right and cannot be reduced to what went into their making.
Shall we find the alternative in diving down into the ever receding depths of the constituents or the basic structure of the physical world till we reach a level where matter is no longer material but dissolves into mathematical equations and concepts? I would still say, No; for these would still be objective givennesses that will never yield the subjectivity of mind.
Philosophers, baffled by the irreducible realities of the subjective sphere, invented the word qualia. That was good as far as it went, as far as it was an acknowledgement of the reality of those realities. But then they went on to apply to qualia the same reductionist methods that they had been applying to mind, with the same result.
The reality of mind will remain a mystery, just as Being will always remain an ultimate mystery; and the ideal content of our minds can be understood in terms of – and only in terms of – the ideas created by those very minds.


D. R. Khashaba
A marginal note on: I. 'The Possibility of God: An Essay in the Philosophy of Religion' by John Paolini, and II. 'The (Im)Possibility of (Desire of) God: a Response to John Paolini' by Brian Tee, Issue number 51 of Philosophy Pathways, http://www.shef.ac.uk/~ptpdlp/newsletter/

I was charmed by the humane, feeling, and insightful essay of John Paolini, whose searching, candid words speak directly to the heart. But in the end he leaves us with the unanswered question, What is this God we yearn for and where do we find him? On the other hand, I have to confess that I find Brian Tee's adversative approach uninspiring.
The vital question we have to face is, How can we rescue the spirituality we seem to be losing with the loss of traditional faith in established religions?
When Hume taught us that 'is' does not yield 'ought', we had need of Kant to reinstate the balance. Kant regained for us the 'ought' – without which there can be no kosmos (in the original Greek sense) – in Reason: pure, yielding logical necessity; practical, yielding moral obligation; judgematic, yielding aesthetic value.
But empiricism in its various guises – positivism, naturalism, physicalism, scientism – seeing that 'ought' is not to be found in the objective world, simply jettisoned it and was content with 'what is'. We were left to choose between supernaturalists marketing their various brands of God on the one hand and naturalists and secular humanists on the other hand telling us that we have no need for anything beyond 'what is'. (That is why I felt it necessary to oppose Quine's "On What There Is" in my essay "On What Is Real".)
I hold that this is a phantom dilemma, that we have a third viable option. We need spirituality if we are to realize the full potential of our humanity, and we can have that spirituality without institutionalized religion.
The ideas and ideals, the dreams and flights of imagination, that constitute the spiritual life of humankind, are realities in the intelligible realm, and that spiritual life itself is our reality. As a mutable being, ceaselessly flowing from moment to moment and from one state of transient existence to another, I am only half-real, or only real by sufferance; but in creative thought, in deeds of love, in the awesome sense of beauty as I cry with Wordsworth,
My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky
I am truly real. And that reality is not epiphenomenal, or accidental, or a figure of speech; it is all we know of reality and all the reality we know. It is the objective world with all its appearances and all its happenings that is an adjunct to this reality, not the other way round. This is the truth we lost when empiricism and cynicism combined led us to lose faith in idealism; and this is the truth we need to regain if human life is not to be
a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.


D. R. Khashaba

Abstract: Few will question the title of Plato's Euthyphro to being accounted a philosophical work. I examine this short dialogue to find out what gives it that title. I find that it neither propounds a thesis, nor draws inferences from premises, nor establishes any conclusions. I suggest that a philosophical work has a dual function: (a) crtical, examining preconceived notions and prejudices, enabling us to look with clearer eyes into our own minds; (b) creative, offering ideas and ideal patterns under which the chaotic content of our experience gains meaningfulness.


What is a philosophical work? This is a question to which there can be a myriad of reasonable answers. So without claiming to give the one right answer, I will try to offer an answer by examining Plato's Euthyphro, whose title to being accounted a philosophical work will not be questioned by many.
In doing so I may be imitating the foolish interlocutors in the Socratic dialogues who, when asked: What is, say, courage?, answer: Standing firm in battle is courage. So, asked: What is a philosophical work?, I will answer: the Euthyphro is a philosophical work. So much of foolishness I ask to be permitted me. But I will not stop there. I will go on to show what, in my view, makes the Euthyphro a philosophical work.(1)
I will first give an Outline of the Dialogue, then an Analysis, followed by Conclusions. The Euthyphro is one of the shortest, perhaps the shortest, of Plato's Dialogues, and its concentration may be an aid to the purpose of our examination.
In form the piece is a simple drama in one act. one scene, with only two characters. Yet a work of Plato's, however simple in form and structure, is never 'simple' in intent or in philosophical content. Plato always weaves various aims, themes and dimensions into his work. The Euthyphro is no exception. In the following summary and analysis I follow a single thread of the rich fabric.


Socrates comes to the Stoa of the Archon Basileus to meet the indictment brought up against him by Meletus. There he meets with the soothsayer Euthyphro who has come to lay charges against his own father who has caused the death of a man without due process of law. Euthyphro proceeds against his father to remove the pollution thus incurred. The impiety in failing to do so would outweigh the impiety of acting against his own aged father. Euthyphro is fully confident that his expert knowledge of theology makes it possible for him to decide what is pious and what impious in such a situation.
What, then, Socrates asks, is piety? Euthyphro offers his own proceeding as an example. That, Socrates explains, does not answer his question.
Next Euthyphro says that piety is whatever is approved of by the gods and impiety whatever is not approved of by them. Socrates reminds Euthyphro that he has spoken of conflicts and dissensions among the gods. If there is no consensus among the gods, how can their discordant opinions help us know what is pious?
Well, says Euthyphro, what is approved of by all the gods is pious. Good, but is that which is approved of by the gods pious because the gods approve of it, or do they approve of it because it is pious? To the simple-minded Euthyphro, the pious is pious because the gods approve of it. Socrates shows that, logically, the statement fails to answer the question.
Socrates volunteers to help out: What if we consider piety as part of righteousness? What part? The part, says Euthyphro, that has to do with serving the gods. Various meanings of service are considered, none of which is found to be satisfactory.
Euthyphro has to attend to his business and excuses himself, leaving the discussion in this inconclusive condition.


The critical part of the dialogue begins with Socrates saying to Euthyphro: Tell me, then, what do you say piety is and what impiety? (5c, 5d.) What are we to understand by – what do we mean by – piety? As I have often reiterated in my writings, Socrates does not ask for a definition, but wants his interlocutor to look within his own mind and try to make out what he understands by the concept under discussion.
Euthyphro answers that to do what he is doing is piety. As evidence he cites the action of Zeus against his father Cronus and what Cronus in turn had done to his own father. Socrates is incredulous of such tales, but that is not what he wishes to examine right now. He is content to register his incredulity and lead his partner back to the question under examination.
By his initial answer Euthyphro has shown that, like most interlocutors in the Socratic dialogues, he has no idea what it is to examine a concept apart from the concrete instances in which it is exemplified. At this point Socrates tries to clarify the distinction between the various perceptible instances of a certain character and the idea that we have in our mind of that character, the distinction between a sensible realm of things in the world surrounding us and an intelligible realm of ideas in our mind which render the things meaningful. He asks Euthyphro to tell him of that one character which makes all things pious pious.
The creative concept of the distinction between the intelligible and the perceptible is Socrates' original and profound contribution to philosophical thought and is pivotal to the whole of Plato's philosophy. Socrates nowhere tries to 'prove' this distinction or to 'prove' the 'existence' of the intelligible realm. He proclaims the distinction and the reality of the intelligible realm, and in all he says and does he manifests the value and meaning with which our life becomes infused in the light of these concepts.
Euthyphro says that what is agreeable to the gods is pious, what is disagreeable to them impious (6e-7a). Even if we found no other fault with this statement, still, believing what Euthyphro does believe about the wars and quarrels among the gods, it would not help us know what is pious and what impious: what pleases one god may displease another (7a-8b). Clearly, the ideas in Euthyphro's mind do not form a consistent, coherent whole; they clash as much as his gods do.
Technically, this is an argument ad hominem, which is legitimate within proper limits, and Socrates does not make much of it. Indeed, for Plato its value resides more in revealing the absurdity of the popular conception of the gods than in disclosing the insufficiency of the statement proposed.
Prompted by Socrates, Euthyphro accepts an amendment to his statement: what all the gods like is pious, what all of them hate is impious (9d). Let us see: shall we say that the pious is loved by the gods because it is pious or that it is pious because it is loved by the gods (10a)? This is a knotty question that Euthyphro cannot easily comprehend. It is also a question with a tremendously profound dimension, which Plato is content to leave hovering here because in the present context it could not be dealt with commensurately with its profundity. Still, the prophetic notion of the autonomy of morality, which was to be the core of Kant's moral philosophy, is here clearly hinted at.
Socrates, leaving aside the profounder problem, explains the logic of the question: we speak of carrying and being carried, leading and being led, seeing and being seen. So also being loved is one thing and loving another. In short, what is carried, led, seen, loved, is in such a state because of some action to which it is subject. To say that a thing is in a state of being loved by the gods is to say that the gods love it. In other words, it is to say that something is happening to it. That is not to say what it is. The statement, then, that the pious is pious because it is loved by the gods tells us of an accident to which it is subject, but does not tell us what it is.
We shall say then that the gods love what is pious because it is pious. In other words, the gods love piety because of what it is. But then we are back to the question: What is piety?
Euthyphro confesses to his being at a loss what more to say and Socrates offers to help. We will readily agree that what is pious is righteous (dikaion). Well, is all that is righteous pious, or shall we say that, while all that is pious is righteous, part of what is righteous is pious and part of some other character? (11e-12a.) Once more, the question is too complex for Euthyphro and Socrates has again to explain a point of logic.
No modern student has any problem with such a question, thanks to the work done by philosophers. Philosophers create notions, distinctions, ways of looking at things, of examining questions, that become an integral part of the mental equipment of cultured humans. We very easily forget that these tools are gifts of individual creative thinkers.
Socrates then suggests that the pious is part of the righteous. What part of righteousness is piety? Euthyphro says that piety is that part of righteousness that has to do with attending to the gods; the rest of righteousness covers our dealings with humans (12e). Well, what do we mean by this tendance or service to the gods? We make use of this notion of tendance when we speak of tending to horses or cattle. We are then speaking of a special skill or branch of knowledge. Euthyphro thinks this may well be true of piety as tendance to the gods (13b). But in the case of attending to horses or cows the purpose and the result is to benefit the horses and cows and improve them. This cannot be the case with attending to the gods (13c).
Euthyphro suggests a different analogy. The service to the gods that is piety is of the kind rendered by slaves to their masters (13d). It is then some kind of assistance. A slave assists his master in performing work aiming at some good. What then is the good work in the performance of which the pious assist the gods? (13e.)
Many and fine are the works of the gods. But what is the chief work in the performace of which they make use of the assistance of the pious? Euthyphro says that when someone knows how to gratify the gods in offering sacrifices and prayers, that amounts to piety, and that secures the wellbeing of individuals and of society (14a-b). That, Socrates finds, comes down to offering gifts to the gods and asking favours in return (14c-d). To ask properly would be to ask for what we need; to give properly would be to give what the recipients need. Piety would be a species of trading carried out between humans and gods (14d-e.). The goods that we may receive from the gods are obvious, but what benefit do they derive from our gifts? Nothing but honour and reverence and gratification. Then piety is simply pleasing to the gods. We have thus returned full circle to the view that piety is what is pleasing to the gods, which we have already found unsatisfactory (15a-b).
We should go back and start the investigation anew. But Euthyphro is in a hurry and has to go.


To my mind, what makes of the Euthyphro a philosophical work is precisely that it is not anything of what most people expect of a philosophical work. It does not advance a thesis; it does not draw inferences from a proposition or set of propositions; it does not establish a theory or present arguments in support of a hypothesis.
What do we find in this little philosophical work? A word that is part of our common vocabulary, that we use and think we understand, is examined to see what meaning or meanings and what associations of meanings it evokes for us: a piece of the furniture of our mental chamber is turned this way and that way to see how well-wrought it is and how well it sits with the rest of the furniture in the chamber.(2)
A philosophical work, true to Socratic dialectic, does not seek to arrive at a definite conclusion, or to prove or uphold a thesis or set of theses, but to subject one's own and others' beliefs, presuppositions, and accepted notions to searching examination, to illumine obscure nooks and crannies in one's own mind and others' minds. The end is not to arrive at conclusions, but to help us gaze within ourselves with clearer eyes.
F. M. Cornford has this to say of the dialectical treatment of a subject:
"[A modern reader] will readily understand that dialectic means a co-operative inquiry carried on in conversation between two or more minds that are equally bent, not on getting the better of the argument, but on arriving at the truth. A tentative suggestion ('hypothesis') put forward by one speaker is corrected and improved until the full meaning is clearly stated. The criticism that follows may end in complete rejection or lead on to another suggestion which (if the examination has been skilfully conducted) ought to approach nearer to the truth."(3)
This is a good description of the procedure of dialectical discourse, which is basically true of all genuine philosophical discourse however conducted. My only reservation is about the phrases 'arriving at the truth' and 'to approach nearer to the truth'. There is no objective truth to be arrived at. The end of proper philosophical discourse is to achieve a fuller awareness of our presuppositions, a clearer understanding of the fundamental notions and principles on which we base our judgements. Those fundamental notions and principles cannot be discovered in anything external to the mind and are not amenable to proof. To argue with a view to establishing their truth or revealing their falsity is vain. They rest in their own self-evidence. The question to be raised with regard to them is not a question of truth or falsity, but one of value and sufficiency and viability. The critical question to be posed in assessing a philosophical view should be: What kind of world does that view give us to live in? What kind of life does it offer? What level of intelligibility does it secure for us.
Does this mean that philosophical thought has no positive content whatever? No. What I am saying is (and I believe this was Plato's position too) that it can rest in no definitive formulation whatever. The searching examination is the whole of the philosophical act: that perpetuated act is a constant affirmation and realization of the reality of human intelligence and the integrity of the human mind. That is our whole reality and the ground of our proper worth. That reality finds creative expression in ideals and principles and theoretical models, rooted in our reality and 'true' in so far as they are expressions of that reality. But their particular formulations are necessarily always relative and contingent. Taken as final and absolute, as 'true', they turn into dogma and superstition. That is why they have to be constantly re-examined, put under the light-rays of new questions, revealing the inherent insufficiency of all determinate thought, that being the critical function of philosophy.
And since the expression of our inner reality in ideal formulations does not represent or seek to represent any outer, objective, actuality, the concept of truth is irrelevant and inapplicable to it. That is what I mean by saying that all creative philosophical thinking is mythical and oracular. It has nothing to do with facts; its whole concern is with values, the values of goodness. beauty, and, no!, not truth, but truthfulness.
The philosophical endeavour soars on two wings: the oracular and the dialectical.(4) The two are complementary and no genuine philosophy can be without a share of both, but a particular work of philosophy, or even the bulk of a particular philosopher's work, can be either principally dialectic or principally oracular. In the Euthyphro we can see the dialectical dimension clearly illustrated, but we can also glimpse the oracular dimension, not only in the ideal of God or the gods as necessarily good but also and markedly in the principle that moral values must be autonomous. This was the insight that formed the core of Kant's moral philosophy.
Socrates' life-mission was to combat amathia ('ignorance') by helping his interlocutors examine themselves. Amathia, the evil of which the Socratic elenchus rids the soul, is not lack of knowledge: in its milder variety, it is obscure and confused thought; in its more pernicious variety, it is 'disknowledge' instilled into the soul by bad upbringing and bad education, consisting in false values and notions and beliefs. But the process is not purely negative. In the philosophical dialectic (of which the elenchus is simply the characteristically Socratic mode) the philosopher introduces, actually creates, concepts, conceptual distinctions, ideal patterns, which expand, enrich, deepen, the capacity of the mind to infuse meaning into the givennesses of experience. Such concepts, conceptual distinctions, and ideal patterns, are not derived from the outer world and therefore cannot be in any way verified or proved. Again, they are not 'knowledge' imparted to the learner. If the learner receives them as factual knowledge they turn into dogmatic superstitions, a new amathia. When the learner sees them as creative developments of her/his own mind, they become forms of intelligibility under which the mind can translate more of the chaos of the givennesses of experience into the cosmos of intelligence.

(1) In the fifth of my Excursions into the Dialogues of Plato, "The Argument of the Republic", available on my Website: www.Back-to-Socrates.com, I give an ampler answer by examining the chef-d'oeuvre of Plato's. This Excursion has been incorporated in Plato: An Interpretation (2005) as chapter 7.
(2) I hope no one will conclude from this that I align myself with the Ordinary Language school of thought: there may be points of contact, but there are radical differences between their outlook and mine.
(3) F. M. Cornford, Plato's Theory of Knowledge (1935), p.30.
(4) For a fuller elucidation of this view, see my "Philosophy as Prophecy", available on my Website.