Saturday, May 03, 2008


D. R. Khashaba

The word ‘to explain’ is ambiguous. Well, what word isn’t? Apart from abstract symbols in a closed, artificial lingo, every word is ambiguous, and must be; otherwise it cannot function as bearer of all the nuances in its infinite applications. In every particular instance a word necessarily assumes a unique hue imparted to it by the particular context in which it occurs. And who will determine the limits or the extent of that context? Like a Leibnizean monad, every word, strictly speaking, reflects – or, let us say, though Leibniz would not permit us, is open to – absolutely everything in the universe.

That is why no word can be truly defined by terms extraneous to it. That is the secret of the Socratic elenchus that has eluded the pundits, beginning with Aristotle. The message of the aporia with which every Socratic elenctic examination ends is that definition is an impossibility; that the meaning of an idea is only to be beheld in the idea; that the beginning and end of philosophical understanding is encapsulated in Socrates’ foolish dictum: It is by Beauty that all beautiful things are beautiful.

That too is what Wittgenstein, after much travail, came to see in his late philosophy when he declared that “the meaning is the use”.

But that is not the theme I intended for this essay. For while all words are ambiguous and can lead to confused thinking, I mean here to speak of the special traps inhering in the word ‘explanation’.

In fact my present train of thought was triggered by the question: Can evolution, or, more generally, biology, explain morality? Does the genesis of morality explain morality? Or, taking the question to a higher level of generality: Does the genesis of anything explain that thing? The answer to any of these questions depends on the sense in which we take the word ‘explain’. When we admit having explained a thing, taking ‘explained’ in one sense, and then claim or assume that we have explained the thing in a different sense of the word ‘explained’, that leads to confusion of thought that can, and usually does, have grave consequences.

Going back to the question of morality and evolution, there are those who tell us that sympathy, cooperation, helpfulness, even self-sacrifice, have been found in the course of the struggle for existence to be beneficial, and have consequently been taken up in our biological make-up. So far so good. Then it is said that the existence of these traits in humans (and in many other animals) has thus been explained: and in one sense of the term ‘explained’ that is true. But then again it is said, understood, or implied, that such traits have thus been explained as natural phenomena on a level with the phenomena of hunger, thirst, and fright. Morality, as a ‘natural’ thing, is affirmed, assumed, or implied, to have no unique character and no special worth; it is only valuable because it helps us survive. Let us just go one step further along this road: if the only value of morality is that it helps us survive, then if in any particular situation our survival requires that we go against all morality, there is nothing wrong in that.

All that comes from confusing explaining how a thing comes about with explaining what it is.

No matter how our moral attitudes and moral feelings have come about, the important thing is that those attitudes and feelings give us a quality of life, an inner reality, that we may rightly regard as that in us which makes us distinctively human and that is our whole worth and is all the good we can have in life.

Beauty also, we are told, is a product of evolution. The beauty of the male bird’s song has been furthered by evolution to attract the female bird. Question: Why is the female bird attracted by the male bird’s song? Answer: “To ensure the survival of the species.” Wrong answer, I would say. That is the effect of the attraction, not its aitia. The true answer: The female bird is attracted by the beauty of the song because it is beautiful — and, in Keats’s words, “that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” The sense of beauty, the feeling of beauty, is a reality, is a mystery that, to be understood, must simply, innocently, foolishly, be embraced in its pristine self-evidence.

Let it be that my inner reality was forged by an omniscient, omnipotent, transcendent person; let it be that my inner reality was haphazardly produced by Democitian atoms; let it be that my inner reality was encoded in the Big Bang; let it be that my inner reality is a spark from the divine fire from which all that be has come to be; one thing I find needing neither explanation, nor proof, nor verification: my inner reality is what I know certainly and immediately; it is what I am. Proof, verification, explanation, are for what is not wholly real, for the shadows in the Cave.

D. R. Khashaba
Cairo, Egypt, April, 2008