Tuesday, March 27, 2007

"Creating the World"

“Creating the World”
I wrote the following lines commenting on Professor Colin McGinn’s review of The Human Touch: Our Part in the Creation of a Universe by Michael Frayn, in the Washington Post, March 25, 2007, and intended to post it there, but failed to have it posted.

My first reaction upon looking at the headlines of the present review was to feel delighted that Michael Frayn seems to have adopted an approach that I – an independent philosopher sunk in deep obscurity – have been trying to advance. I found it no wonder that this hopefully clear-sighted approach should come from a non-professional philosopher.

The starting point of my philosophical position as expounded in all of my books and published essays has been that what properly characterizes humankind is that humans live in an intelligible world of their own making, meaning by that not only the world of ideals and values which are a creation of the human mind, but also the conceptual and even the perceptual representations which confer intelligibility on the dumb givennesses of the phenomenal sphere. In all of my writings I presented this as an interpretation of the Socratic-Platonic heritage which, sadly, has been partly obliterated and grossly misrepresented in mainstream academic philosophy. (That was the reason behind naming my website Back-to-Socrates.) Of all modern philosophers, I maintain, it was Kant who came nearest to rediscovering the Socratic-Platonic insight (even though Kant accepted without question the traditional misrepresentation of Platonism). It might be that Frayn’s position is a fresh development of the Kantian transcendental philosophy.

I have not yet seen Frayn’s book and therefore cannot tell what measure of justice there is in Professor McGinn’s unfavourable assessment. It may be that Frayn had an insight which, through lack of fundamental philosophic discipline, he failed to expound adequately. I can well agree with McGinn that it was ominous for Frayn to seek support for his view in quantum theory. One other position that I have been advocating in opposition to conventional and mainstream philosophy is the need for a radical separation between science and philosophy. Again this is a position that I claim to derive from Socrates who turned his back to physical investigation and was concerned solely with the ideas and ideals bred in the mind and by the mind; and again I find support for this position in Kant’s distinction between the empirical use of the understanding and the transcendental use of pure reason.

It would be absurd of me to comment on Professor McGinn’s detailed criticism, but I suspect that Professor McGinn might have found the book more meaningful had he been prepared to approach it with a greater measure of sympathy. I find support for this suspicion in McGinn’s summary dismissal of Berkeley’s philosophy as a fallacy. Berkeley took Locke’s presuppositions to their logical conclusion in one direction just as Hume was to take the same presuppositions to their logical conclusion in another direction. It is simplistic to suppose that Berkeley could have “reasoned that objects had to be ideas, since no one can conceive of an object without having an idea of it.”

Professor McGinn apparently confounds idealism, subjectivism, and solipsism. The tone of the final two paragraphs suggests to me that there must have been more lack of imagination on the part of the critic than lack of discretion on the part of the criticized author.

D. R. Khashaba
March 2007

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Is morality a natural phenomenon?

Comment on “Knowing Right and Wrong: Is morality a natural phenomenon? by Alex Byrne, Boston Review, March/April 2007, http://bostonreview.net/BR32.2/byrne.html .

Is morality a natural phenomenon? My first reaction to the question (voiced in the following somewhat whimsical lines jotted down before I had read a single word beyond the title) is to feel a little dumb. I don’t seem to understand what the question means. Presumably there is such a thing as morality; and we meet with that thing in our world, which, to my understanding is the natural world; ergo, morality is a natural phenomenon. Oh! Perhaps the question means: Does morality arise in the natural course of things or could it not have come into the world unless it were introduced from some supernatural source? That would seem to make it a more interesting question. But then I hear the Socrates of the Euthyphro asking: Is morality moral because the supernatural source wanted it that way or did the supernatural source opt for it because it is moral? With Socrates I feel that if I were to accept the first alternative I would lose all self-respect. Once that alternative is removed, then however morality may have come about, I find that it is the moral sense that gives me the finest experiences I ever have in life. In the same way, however our enjoyment of beauty in sound and shape may have come about, that enjoyment of beauty is among the most precious treasures that make life worthwhile. [On reading further I found that Professor Byrne also refers to Socrates’ seminal question in the Euthyphro.]

Professor Byrne seems to brush aside Kant’s well-known remark about “the starry firmament above and the moral law within”. I should be very much saddened if my knowledge of the composition of the sun and the distance of the Horsehead Nebula were to expel the sense of sublime awe that I experience at the spectacle of the starry firmament, which, begging Professor Byrne’s pardon, is still “above”. Above and below are ideas created by the mind and they are real and remain real for the mind.

Professor Byrne writes: “arrange bits of matter a certain way and you have … a lively lobster” (or, he could have said, a Shakespeare or an Einstein). But the lobster is not “bits of matter”. That is the reductionist sleight-of-hand the empiricists play in all innocence. The lobster is a new reality, an original form of being, whose coming into being may be described but never explained. The only way I can find the coming of the lobster into being intelligible is through the idea of the creativity of Reality or Nature or whatever you may call the First Principle which we have to think of as the ultimate ground and source of all “stuff”. We – you and I – are intelligent beings, there is no denying that. And your intelligence and my intelligence have come out of “physical stuff” arranged in a certain way, but this intelligence is not just “stuff”. Stuff, matter, neutrons, neurons, quantum, light years, are all creations of the mind: the mind is the reality, the one reality, of which we have immediate knowledge, and yet we turn our back to it and, with Plato’s cave captives, seek to find reality in shadows.

Hume’s puzzle about the derivation of ‘ought’ from ‘is’ finds its solution in the same way. ‘Is’, as Hume rightly saw, will not explain ‘ought’; but ‘ought’ is an undeniable reality, a true daughter of the intelligence that we have to acknowledge as the one final reality we know of. To obviate a possible misunderstanding, I do not equate that final creative intelligence with a personal God. We can say no more of that ultimate creative intelligence (which elsewhere, in a purely metaphysical orientation, I call Creative Eternity) than that it is the one reality we are immediately aware of and that is the source of all intelligibility.

Thus I cannot accept without qualification the view that “moral facts can be squeezed into the natural world with no effort at all” and that “if this is right, Hume was completely wrong. ‘Ought’ does not express ‘a new relation or affirmation’: an ‘ought’ turns out to be a kind of ‘is’.” Hume may have been the greatest founding father of empiricism, but he did not share the empiricists’ gravest error, reductionism. He understood that ‘ought’ cannot be derived from ‘is’ just as he new that the idea of the cause cannot be derived from any succession of events. It is because he was not deluded on that count that Kant could find in him the impulse that shook him out of ‘dogmatic slumber’ and led to his transcendental system that reinstated the mind as the source of all intelligibility: an insight that had been amply expressed by Socrates-Plato but had been lost sight of in the interval.

Marginally, I am uneasy about the term ‘meta-ethics’, along with all the other ‘meta’s that have been proliferating lately. To my mind Ethics considers fundamental problems and first principles of the moral life. Discussions about the application of ethical principles in practice may be referred to simply as moral discussions. I would not even speak of applied ethics because that suggests that there can be fixed, final principles and rules in that area. Earlier in his paper Professor Byrne alludes to controversies around such questions as: “Should we give more to charity than we actually do? Is torture permissible under extreme circumstances? Is eating meat wrong? Could it ever be permissible to kill one innocent person in order to save five?” To my mind, it is a sad feature of the present philosophical scene that such questions are debated as if there can be a unique, definitive answer to such questions. Each side tries to prove by argument that it is right and the other side wrong. This is wrong. In our actual imperfect world there can be no perfect solutions. While there are things that are clearly right and things that are clearly wrong, over large areas of the imperfect world of practice different values and different principles can and often do clash. And the proper, civilized, and morally responsible way to deal with such questions is to be sympathetic and understanding towards the opposed viewpoints and to know that practical solutions always involve losses and sacrifices. Only abstract principles are absolute. In practice there has to be give and take and sympathy and understanding. This is the way it should be in discussing such questions as those relating to abortion and euthanasia.

Who is the author of the moral law? Socrates in the Crito emphatically affirms that we must never wrong another; we must never injure another, nor return injury for injury, nor ever do evil in return for evil. Socrates did not receive that injunction from a supernatural source, nor did he acquire it from the conventional morality under which he was reared. He drew that principle from within himself because he felt that not to comply with that rule would be to injure his own integrity. This, I blelieve, is also the point of Kant’s Categorical Imperative and of his insistence on the value of moral autonomy and his assertion that the only absolutely good thing is a good will. Kant’s fondness for grand and intricate theoretical superstructures may have obscured the great insight at the foundation of his position, but if “in the juggernaut of contemporary meta-ethics [Kant] has not been in the driver’s seat”, so much the worse for contemporary meta-ethics.

I am not commenting on Professor Byrne’s survey of various meta-ethical theories. I have always maintained that it is not the proper task of philosophy to prove or disprove any theoretical position. Philosophy is not concerned with establishing the truth of any statement or discovering any fact relating to the actual world but with attaining and giving insight into our own proper inner reality. But I will put in a word about a sentence Byrne quotes from John Mackie, that if there were moral facts “they would be entities or qualities or relations of a very strange sort, utterly different from anything else in the universe.” Well, so they are. Those who find this queer do so because they have a very narrow conception of what is in the universe. In the universe there is beauty and love and humour and sadness, which are all “utterly different from anything else in the universe”. I call these realities as opposed to actualities or phenomenal existents. I know that my linguistic usage here sounds queer, but I find my unconventional terminology necessary to give expression to my non-mainstream philosophical position.

I do not agree that “once all the naturalistic facts about suffering, enjoyment, and so on are in place, the moral facts are implicitly settled: an ‘ought’ does follow from an ‘is’.” The facts of a situation do not generate or dictate the ‘ought’ but, the ‘ought’ being independently given, determine the specific form in which the ‘ought’ is to be applied.

“Concerns about the status of morality soon spread like spilled ink: if there’s no room for ethics in a disenchanted nature, most of our distinctively human form of life is also excluded”, says Professor Byrne, and I couldn’t agree more.

One final trifle: Professor Byrne refers to “about 100 years’ worth” of philosophizing that helps to show naïve moral judgements “might even be right”. I risk disclosing a blameful personal prejudice: I do not feel that the philosophy of the past 100 years or so, on balance, contributed much that is positive to our understanding. For “more philosophy” to cure the harm done by “a little bit of philosophy” I would rather go some twenty-four centuries back. Would that the philosophers of the past 100 years did not think themselves so much wiser than their ancient predecessors. Professor Byrne concludes by quoting Bertrand Russell’s statement that “philosophy removes the somewhat arrogant dogmatism of those who have never travelled into the region of liberating doubt, and it keeps alive our sense of wonder by showing familiar things in an unfamiliar aspect.” For myself, I know no one who did that better than Socrates-Plato (one cannot really split these).

D. R. Khashaba
March 2007.

Some papers on this weblog which amplify on or clarify certain points raised here: “Must Values Be Objective?”, “Free Will as Creativity”, “Five Notes on Relativism”, “Explaining Explanation”. Also, “Is There Mind in Nature” where I reproduce a passage from my recently published Hypatia’s Lover.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Know Thyself: Impossible?

Comment on “Do the Impossible: Know Thyself” by Theodore Dalrymple, New English Review, March 2007.

In the following lines I approach the question from an angle different from but not opposed to or at variance with that of Dr. Dalrymple, whose conclusions I find insightful, sagacious, and truly enlightening. Indeed, I fear that my angle of approach being so different, my comments may be thought irrelevant to the content of the article.

I agree that it is an illusion to think that we are “on the verge of … a breakthrough in self-understanding”, not, however, because self-understanding is an impossibility but because we are taking the wrong road to that destination.

A question ‘that is in principle unanswerable’ might be unanswerable not because it demands the impossible but because the question-form suggests that the answer be sought outside the terms of the question, whereas the terms of the question do constitute the reality sought. Thus the endless quandaries of neuroscience and philosophy of mind stem from the error of treating the mind as an object to be explained in terms of other objects – be those elements, concepts, or processes – instead of seeing the self-evident reality of the mind as the first principle of all meaning and all explanation.

This position is not to be confounded with the belief that the thorny practical problems of human existence have been solved. The inner reality of the mind may be our citadel, but on the outside not only the world at large, not only human society at large, not only our body, but even all the drives, inclinations, fears, imposed dogmas and superstitions that throng the mind, form a dark and fearsome jungle that we can only cut through slowly by the instruments of empirical inquiry and pragmatic trial and error. Only those who have surrendered their minds to dogmatism of whatever kind think there are ready, definitive answers to the problems of human existence. But this question is distinct from and should be kept distinct from that of the philosophical question about the mind.

I have no problem, for instance, with conceding that neuropsychiatry may be of help in dealing with certain behavioural or interpersonal problems.

However, self-understanding, the self-understanding that Socrates preached, that Buddha sought, is not something to be achieved, by an individual person or by humanity at large, definitively and once for all. It is not knowledge arrived at and established by some science: it is a way of life, founded on the realization that our inner reality, our inner life, which can only be in the exercise of intelligence, in living as rational beings, is what makes us human and is what gives us what worth we might claim. This self-understanding is not impossible, it is something all normal human beings have some flicker of, but it is not something that may be captured in any fixed objective formulation.

Monday, March 05, 2007


D. R. Khashaba

The ever escalating heat of the Creationist-Darwinist polemics, patterned, on both sides, on the worst kind of factional fanaticism, is doing great damage to rationalism and freedom of thought. Neither party shows any readiness to stop for a moment to say, I may not have the whole truth on my side. Either all design, all purpose, all mind is brought into the world of nature from on high or there is no design, no purpose, and no mind at all in the world of nature. Either Jehovah has revealed it all or Darwin has revealed it all, and there is no more question. They do not reason but wrangle, either party loudly proclaiming they hold the absolute truth captured for all time in a holy book, whether it be the Bible or The God Illusion.

In this short note however I do not intend to discuss the question at length. I reserve that task for a future paper where I hope to examine some more fruitful approaches such as that suggested by the Aristotelean notion of entelechy, by Bergson’s concept of creative evolution, by Whitehead’s philosophy of organism and process. Here I simply offer some rambling thoughts on the subject.

Daniel Dennett, for instance, sees "humans, the human soul and culture as natural products of the primordial soup." In this deceptively simple statement there are at least three dangerously ambiguous terms – 'natural', 'product', 'primordial', leaving alone the metaphorical 'soup' in which one can easily drown – which naturally produce their own primordial haze that must be made more distinct if we are to think a little more clearly.

It is so unfortunate that the notion of 'intelligent design' has been kidnapped by creationists and tied to the carriage of monotheistic revelation. The notion certainly deserved better, for it can justly claim a worthy ancestry from the Logos of Heraclitus and the Nous of Anaxagoras through the Aristotelean Entelechy to the Will and Idea of Schopenhauer. Creationists, by pitting intelligent design against evolution in an either-or contest, have made it possible for Darwinists (who in turn confusingly conflate Darwinism with the basic notion of evolution) to claim that, since it can be shown by empirical evidence that evolution is a fact, we can forget about intelligence and purposiveness in the processes of nature. This does as much wrong to the scientific evolutionary concept as to the philosophical concept of inherent creative intelligence and inherent purposiveness in all becoming. Evolution (Darwinian or non-Darwinian) is a scientific theory (not in the corrupt sense of 'theory' forged by the creationists but in the sense in which all scientific findings are theoretical) that gives an objective account of phenomenal happenings. Science tells us How, it never tells us Why. When certain scientists say that science 'explains' things, this only shows that their minds are innocent of the wondering Why: for them to explain is simply to show how; that is all they are interested in. Newton did not think that his theory and his equations explain why things behave as they do; nor did Einstein. But the unreasonable (I have more than once been chided for using stronger words) controversy wants to force us to choose between a whimsical creator taking it into its head to fabricate a world out of nothing and the equally absurd idea of an inert, lifeless, mindless something also suddenly taking it into its head to start moving and developing.

So once again I find it necessary to reiterate what I have been maintaining in my writings, that the failure to distinguish between the radically different roles and spheres of science and philosophy is damaging to both science and philosophy. Thus here we find ourselves required to make the sorry choice between saving intelligence in the universe by accepting the arbitrary authority of revealed religion, and vainly seeking to save our own intelligence by resting content with something mindless and lifeless as what is ultimately real. But we need not be reduced to that sad choice. Science, and only science, is entitled and able to give us an account of how things are and how they have come to be as they are, and that account remains valid until science has a (by its own criteria) better account to give. At the same time, poetry and philosophy and art (yes, these belong together in one family) are entitled and able to give us a vision through which we find meaning and value in the world and in ourselves. Can that vision be true? If we take the notion of truth as meaning that which conforms to things as they are objectively, which reports what is the case, then the notion of truth is inapplicable to the creative vision of poetry/philosophy/art whose reality is inherent and self-contained. That vision is meaningful and as meaningful constitutes the reality we live in as intelligent beings. That is all we have, all we can have, and all we need to have.

Philosophers must learn humility from poets, though poets are with justice a very proud race. Poets do not bother to say that their visions have any truth or validity outside themselves. Philosophers too should refrain from the attempt to assert that their visions and principles apply to the world outside. Their visions and principles are true of the only real world they know. They should be content with that. The Unknowable is unknowable and that's that. The only noumenon we know is our own inner reality. The noumenon of the world is our idea. To match our idea of the noumenon of the world with the noumenon of the world we have to be outside the world and inside the world at the same time, which is nonsensical.

Creationists and the advocates of the new-fangled Intelligent Design doctrine place all intelligence outside us and reduce us to miserable beggars depending for all intelligence and all understanding on dole. Materialists, Darwinists, and their tribe, when they step out of their proper place as scientists and parade as philosophers, banish all intelligence and all mystery and give us a world that is pale and stale.

Permit me to conclude these thoughts by reproducing an excerpt from the supplementary part of my latest book, Hypatia’s Lover, giving an imaginary answer of Hypatia’s to an imaginary question.

“From Hypatia’s answers to students’ questions:

“Is there mind in the cosmos, in the world we see around us? This is a question which only a fool would rush to answer confidently. Plato told us in the Sophist about the ongoing battle of the Gods and the Giants. The Giants would make even of the mind in us a phantom thing not worthy of being dignified with the title of reality. The Gods see mind as the root and source and ground of reality. Now, I am no goddess of course, but you all know that I side with the philosophical Gods. To my mind the notion of a thing, any thing, existing apart from mind, is unintelligible. I cannot see how a thing that is not rooted in mind can be.
“But in what sense is there mind in things that we call material? In what sense is there mind in a rock, in a log of wood, in a manufactured article? These are intricate questions about which we can speculate endlessly. Here I would only explain that when I say that I cannot see how there can be anything apart from mind, I am not referring to mind as we habitually know it in ourselves. Mind as we habitually know it in ourselves is conditioned by the limitations and special circumstances of human life. And most manifestations of mind in our normal life and normal experience do not represent what we should see as most valuable or most real in us. Skill and shrewdness and even praiseworthy ingenuity are not what is best and happiest in us.
“But mind, or, as I prefer to say, intelligence, is to me an inseparable aspect of life, of creativity, of what is real. So, while I say that, theoretically, I cannot see how there can be a rock that is not grounded in mind, I yet confess that I have no notion as to how mind is related to the rock. But I can say with more confidence that I feel there is mind in a flower or a bee in the same sense as there is mind in our best moments of tranquility and of happiness. And I have to explain that when I speak of mind in the bee I do not mean the amazing abilities of the bee that put our best skills to shame, but I mean the intelligence inherent in its sheer vitality.
“I know that my thoughts on this subject are vague and nebulous and in need of development and clarification, but not more so – I unhesitantly say – than my thoughts on any other subject, the only difference being that, on the other subjects, I employ terms and notions that seem sensible to you because they sound familiar. But in truth, if we are not to delude ourselves, we must confess that all our theoretical thinking is of necessity always vague and nebulous, in need of constant examination, clarification, and re-formulation. When we forget this, we fall into the gross and deadly delusion of thinking ourselves in possession of final, definitive truth. This, after all, is the core message of the Socratic elenchus and of Plato’s conception of dialectic.
“I have said this before and I feel it bears repetition. When any of you puts to me any question, I hope that the questioner may never be under the delusion of expecting me to give a true answer. A question for which there can be a true answer is foreign to philosophy. A philosophical question is an invitation, an incitation, to reflection, to the clarification of our own thoughts. If you want true answers, go to the artisans, or go to the theologians! All their answers are absolutely true, even when they are absolutely contradictory! When you ask me a question, then whatever I may say – at least that’s what I hope – I am not giving you an answer but am inciting you to look into your own mind.”(1)

D. R. Khashaba
Cairo, Egypt
E-mail: dkhashaba@yahoo.comdaoud.khashaba@gmail.com

(1) Hypatia’s Lover (2007): http://www.virtualbookworm.com/store/search.php?mode=search&page=1