Wednesday, April 25, 2007



A visitor to my website sent me a message saying: “How would you view an opinion that puts an origin of life in randomness, as opposed to a unity. Wittgenstein’s stumbling place might have been that logic does not understand randomness. etc.” The reply I sent him may be of interest. I reproduce the main body of it here:

Since you seem to have been into my writings, you will probably know that I insist on drawing a clear line between philosophy and science, leaving the investigation of the objective world, as Socrates did, to science, and confining philosophy to the study of the ideas and ideals bred in the mind and by the mind, and which alone give us our proper character as human beings. I may soon be writing a paper on Kant and Plato in which I revert once more to the elucidation of this idea.

Randomness may be a concept, hypothesis, or theory, with a useful role (perhaps rather different roles) in the various sciences and mathematics. As such, in my view, it lies outside the sphere of philosophy proper, and it is not for me to hold or give an opinion about it.

You ask about “an opinion that puts an origin of life in randomness”. Again I would say that the origin of life is a scientific question to be investigated by the objective methods of science and subjected to the objective criteria of science. But while these methods and criteria may give us a description of how life came to be, they cannot tell us what life is. The meaning of life is a philosophical question that is not affected one way or the other by the results of scientific investigation. I maintain that all the hubbub and controversy between creationists, Darwinists, and advocates of Intelligent Design, is wrong-headed on all sides. I have written repeatedly on this and do not wish to go further into it here.

Also I do not think that the concept of randomness is of any relevance to the question of free will. If you care to look into my views on this question you may read “Free Will as Creativity” which is available on my blog. A shorter version appeared in Philosophy Pathways and may be found in under Feature Articles.

I am afraid I don’t understand what you mean by your remark that “Wittgenstein’s stumbling place might have been that logic does not understand randomness.” Let me first say that although I have written a long essay about Wittgenstein I must confess that my knowledge of Wittgenstein’s work is very fragmentary. And while your statement that “logic does not understand randomness” is open to various interpretations, I do not feel that in any case it offers a fair critique of Wittgenstein. But, having confessed to my fragmentary acquaintance with Wiggenstein’s work and my failure to understanding the meaning of your statement, any comment I try to make will be mere fumbling in the dark. Still, I will suggest (perhaps rashly) that if you have not yet read my essay on Wittgenstein, you may find it of interest. It is available on my blog.

My correspondent answered with an email packed with thought-provoking questions. I give below the gist of my reply:

Your questions, or rather questionings, especially those packed in the fifth paragraph of your email, suggest to me that you are working towards an integrated philosophical outlook of your own. That, believe me, is a journey that one can only accomplish unaccompanied. A philosopher, like a poet, is a lonely soul. And a philosophical question cannot have one ‘correct’ answer. A question that can have a definitive answer is decidedly not a philosophical question. A philosophical question is an incitement to original, creative thinking. The reason why I value Plato above all other philosophers is that Plato does not give us answers to questions but infects us with his perplexity and makes us think for ourselves.

You ask if Socrates thought of the world as belonging to a whole. It seems that Socrates did not concern himself with metaphysical questions, but in Plato’s development of Socrates’ thought, he (according to my interpretation) not only thought of the world as a whole but considered the idea of the whole the major key to philosophizing. But I cannot compress my views on this question in a short statement. I may say that each of the four books I have published so far is an attempt to make such a statement.

Where does that leave randomness? If randomness represents the seemingly chaotic world that confronts us and presses in on us on every side, then not only philosophy but the whole of the human endeavour is a ceaseless effort to find order, intelligibility, unity, in that chaos. On that view randomness would not have its place within philosophy but would be the outer darkness that philosophy battles against.

28 April 2007

Wednesday, April 11, 2007



Thoughts suggested by John Dupré’s review of Alex Rosenberg’s Darwinian Reductionism: Or, How to Stop Worrying and Love Molecular Biology (American Scientist online, May-June, 2007: )

Prefatory Note: Reductionism is a subject that has often provoked me to strong comment, and the first part of the following note was an almost involuntary reflex to the title of Professor Dupré’s review of Alex Rosenberg’s book, which I jotted down before I had read a single word beyond the title. The tone of the note is perhaps somewhat irritated and whimsical. Further, at least the first paragraph must sound enigmatic. If what I have just said sends the reader off, neither s/he nor I will have lost anything of much value.


Reductionism is always right and, at the same time, always wrong. Yet advocates and opponents of reductionism are not thereby reconciled. Those who find satisfaction in reductionist ‘explanations’ normally fail to see how those ‘explanations’ are the wrong answer to a certain type of question while those who see the wrongness of reductionist answers for a specific kind of question tend to ignore the validity and value of those same reductionist answers to a different kind of question. The failure of understanding between reductionists and their opponents may be partly congenital – we are all born into the one category or the other – but it is compounded by the failure of mainline philosophy to acknowledge that philosophy and science are radically distinct approaches. This is the heterodoxy I have been trying to advance in all my writings, from Let Us Philosophize in 1998 to “Explaining Explanation” quite recently: .

Since everything that comes into being in the natural world has an ancestry of other beings in the natural world, it is always possible to break down what has become into what it had been and in a sense it is right to equate the new and the old. But when the scientist says that the flower is earth and water and energy from the sun, the fool says: No, it is not; and the fool is not always wrong. Kant said that 5+7 = 12 is a synthetic, not an analytic, judgement, and Plato had said the same thing, using the very same figures 5, 7, and 12. Why? Plato says that 12 is an instance of auto to on and, on Plato’s behalf, I would venture to say that the flower also is an instance of auto to on.

Perhaps this does not seem like so much after all. Well, it may not seem like much to say that the idea of 12 is something over and above the ideas of 5 and 7. It may even not seem like much to say that the flower is something over and above the components and processes that went into its flowering. But perhaps it begins to like something when we say that the mind is something over and above the brain and all its neuronal doings and happenings. And perhaps it begins to look like something when we say that life is something over and above all that biochemistry has it in its ken. And it begins to look like very much to say that the mind is not only a reality but is the only reality of which we have immediate and self-evident knowledge and that life is a reality and is the most precious thing we know. This is Platonism as I understand it.

Now theologians come and, in opposition to reductionists who tell us that life is nothing but so-and-so and that the mind is nothing but so-and-so, want us to believe that life and mind are mysterious entities introduced by or from some supernatural source. They make life and mind alien intruders in our world. Instead of holding that life and mind are something over and above the physical elements that go into their making, they make life and mind into something foreign to nature and opposed to natural processes. And the battle rages between those who tell us that there is nothing real beyond, apart from, or other than the elements and processes of the natural world, and those who assure us that the account given of life and mind in terms of the elements and processes of nature is false and that the truth comes from a source outside the natural world.

What is the relevance to all of this of the radical distinction I said we have to draw between science and philosophy? And what did I mean when I said at the beginning of this note that reductionism is always right and always wrong? It is this: Science, with its reductionist approach and reductionist methods, will tell us how things come to be. That is its work. That is the only way we can have knowledge of things – all things – as they are. But science will not give us understanding of the meaning, the inner essence, of anything. It is the business of philosophy, of poetry, of art, to explore the meaning and reveal the essence of things. Science can tell us how a flower comes to be, but only a poet, an artist, will put us in possession of the meaning, in communion with the essence, of a flower, or, as Socrates would say, it is by the idea of beauty – a pure creation of the mind that you can find nowhere but in the mind – that a beautiful thing is beautiful for us. The danger of failing to make this radical distinction between the proper spheres of science and philosophy is that otherwise we find ourselves pressed between the claims of a supernatural source for all value and meaning, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, an exclusive reliance on natural explanation, which, to say the least, tends to enfeeble our awareness of the inner realities of life and the mind.

This is what I tried to bring out in all my books and in such essays as “On What is Real”, “God or Nature?”, “Must Values be Objective?”, “The Need for Spirituality”, etc., etc.


Coming now to the review article, Professor Dupré states that Alex Rosenberg “believes that everything is ultimately determined by what happened at the physical level — and that this entails that the mind is ‘nothing but’ the brain.” I see the first part of this statement as a serviceable working hypothesis for science, but it is with the ‘nothing but’ section that things start to go awry. To put it strongly, perhaps rather offensively, I believe that Professor Rosenberg, as a scientist, has no business with the mind. Well, I’ll be told that Professor Rosenberg is a philosopher of biology, which, to me, has an incongruous ring: I believe that mixing science and philosophy inevitably leads to confusion. I would prefer to speak of theoretical biology, a discipline which should concern itself with general, basic principles of the phenomena of life but which should keep clear of any question of meaning, purpose, or essence.

Since I make no claim to any specialized scientific knowledge, I am not qualified to comment on Dupré’s criticism of Rosenberg’s position. I have no problem with supposing that, whatever the state of the theory of biology may be at present, some day a complete reduction of biological phenomena to what happens at the physical level may be achieved. That will not, in my view, mean that such a theory will be in a position to provide answers to the philosophical questions about the meaning and value of life. These can only be answered in terms of ideas and ideals generated by and in the mind.

But, marginally, I will allow myself to say that the paragraph quoted by Dupré fom Rosenerg on Dobzhansky sounds as stolid as the most extreme of theological dogmatisms. It is a pity that the absurdities of Creationists and Intelligent-Designists practically discourage rational criticism of the over-confident claims of Darwinists. They also keep in check a needed distinction between Darwinian theory and the more general theory or principle of evolution.

Professor Dupré seems to be justified in referring to Rosenberg’s “implausible position” and “reactionary argument”. Perhaps Professor Rosenberg’s reductionism is of a kind that effectively falsifies my opening contention that reductionism is always right and, at the same time, always wrong. His seems to be very little in the right and very much in the wrong. But I confess this is a personal impression on the part of a confessed ignoramus and on very meagre evidence to boot.

D. R. Khashaba
April 2007