Sunday, September 27, 2009



The modern mind having been deluded by the dazzling successes of the natural sciences into absorbing unquestioningly the basic scientific tenet, that only the objective, the testable, the measurable, yields knowledge and understanding, was further lured by the tantalizing Leibnizean dream of a perfect symbolic language that would reduce metaphysical and moral problems to problems of computation. Ever since a major sector of philosophic thought has been sold to reductionism, which, I will doggedly maintain, is the death of philosophy.

The advent of cybernetics reinforced this harmful trend. Computers could work wonders provided they are fed with information in the form of symbols. This gave birth to Information Technology, a great science that has become all too important for our present-day civilization. But it should be clear that it is, or should be, a science with a strictly defined function: to translate all objective facts into a language that is serviceable for computation. Outside that area it has no competence. It cannot disclose the meaning of anything or determine the value of anything. The confounding of science and philosophy has already done and continues to do grave harm. When we are made to think that it is Information Technology that gives understanding, then – and I mean what I am saying literally – the very being of humanity is threatened. Witness our worthy economists and our worthy generals!

To transform information into symbols, the first prerequisite is to determine the purpose which the symbols are to serve. If the purpose is to launch a rocket to the moon, the consideration that lovers have for aeons delighted in walking side by side in the moonlight is of no relevance. For our specific purpose, the moon is nothing but mass, velocity, and I know not what other characteristics that can be expressed digitally.

To render information in a form serviceable for a strictly prescribed objective, symbols deplete the words of common language of meaningful content. The more of a symbol a word is, the flimsier in meaning it becomes. Thus while symbols may and do enable us to make use of information for specific purposes, they are incapable of performing the original and vital function of words in the common walks of life, namely, to enable human beings to communicate with one another as human beings. A living word suggests, alludes. Vagueness is an indispensable feature of a living word. It is not a defect. A word, when not reduced to a symbol, does not stand for a static thing but relates to the flow and tide of the actual world.

Marginally, I know that the adepts of logical symbolism vaunt of being able to deal with such puzzles as that of ‘reference to Nonexistents’ and the like. I have no desire to enter into that nest of hornets at this point. The problem of negative statements was raised by Plato in the Theaetetus, but left there standing, to be taken up again and resolved in the Sophist, but our philosophers persevere in keeping the conundrum rolling. The thrashing of logical problems and the problems of symbolism may have useful practical applications, but I do not see them as having any philosophical relevance. I think Wittgenstein was right when he said, “The propositions of logic are tautologies. Therefore the propositions of logic say nothing. (They are the analytic propositions.)” (Tractatus, 6.1 and 6.11.)

I do not think that all the labour analytical philosophers expend on the problems relating to truth-value has anything to do with philosophical understanding. It may help in laying down rules for manipulating symbols, but it cannot touch on the content of what the symbols stand for. That is why I shun the word ‘truth’ in my writings. In my view, philosophy proper is not concerned with truth but with insight, and the insight, in the end, if it is genuine philosophical insight, is always insight into our inner reality and our proper value as intelligent (I prefer this word to ‘rational’) beings.

The meaning of a word or a sentence is the subjective presence of the word or sentence. That is the great insight in Socrates’ foolish “It is by Beauty that the beautiful is beautiful.” To symbolize a word or sentence is to drain it of its lifeblood, to turn it into a dry shell. That can be very beneficial for certain specific purposes, but it is not the work of philosophy proper, and its utility should not deceive us into thinking that in that way we can gain any understanding.

Bertrand Russell, in offering an ingenious technical solution to a problem of logical symbolism, lured analytical philosophers into literally interminable quandaries. Neither Russell nor his followers realized that the genius who first gave us number had anticipated them without falling into their folly. A farmer and a weaver go to market. The weaver knows that one of his woollen shirts is worth two cabbages. He barters two shirts for four cabbages. Both the weaver and the farmer praise the gods for the gift of Number, but they are wise enough to know that Two could not give them warmth nor could Four stay their hunger. (I may one day write an article examining Russell’s classical essay “On Denoting”.)

By equating ourselves with computers, by reducing ourselves to information systems, we are in danger of becoming oblivious of our humanity and in the end losing our humanity.

The Socratic elenctic examination of ideas, rightly understood, shows that ideas such as love, friendship, loyalty, etc., cannot be reduced even to other intelligible ideas. You can create a digital counter for love and you can use it for making valid deductions. A robot may be able to calculate and simulate how a human being will behave, given that s/he loves her/his child, but the robot will not understand love unless it were endowed with the gift of experiencing love.

Cybernetics pundits, having modeled computers on brains, now propose that we see our brains (they have no use for minds!) as computers. We are told that our feelings are the response of our brains to information. My feeling is not a response of my brain to information – my feeling, as a subjective reality, is how the whole of my subjective personality answers to a total situation. I cannot accept the reductive implication of making the brain the author of my feelings and my behaviour. The reductive account cannot explain the spontaneity, the freedom, the creativity that are my birthright as a being endowed with intelligence.

Similarly, the attempt to reduce feelings to chemical reactions is equally deluded and equally harmful. I will grant that we can translate feelings into information rendered in terms of chemical reactions, but I would insist that it is morally and intellectually harmful to habituate ourselves to equating our feelings – and the whole of our inner life – with chemical, physical, neurological, etc., processes.

My doctor takes my pulse, my blood-pressure, my temperature, etc., etc. These are all given as digits. They are what are called my vital signs. My life depends on them, a few digits more here, a few digits less there, and I am no longer a living thing, let alone a thinking or feeling thing. To my doctor, in her/his capacity as doctor, these digits sum me up. But I would be gravely offended if my doctor regarded me as no more than a collection of digits on her/his laptop or in her/his notebook.

Again, to say that emotions are triggered in us by the sound of a phrase spoken to us — not, mind you, by the meaningful content but by the physical phenomenon of sound – is, at best, a damaging simplification. The words “I love you” spoken by my daughter or my granddaughter issues in an emotion distinctly different from the emotion which issues when the same phrase is spoken by someone else. To say that my brain triggers the emotion is a shorthand sign for indicating a slice of reality of inexhaustible interconnectedness. The emotion is not a brain response; it is a creative development in the living medium of my inner reality. By all means use your shorthand signs for computation purposes but don’t mistake them for the real thing. The sun also is a system of chemical formulae and physical equations. But the formulae and equations in your computer, however accurate, will not give light, or warmth, or life.

The deluge of information flooding down on humanity from the heights of technological sophistication, even in its positive character, threatens to destroy human civilization. When its pundits tell us that information is not only all the wisdom there is but also all the reality there is, that is no longer a threat; it is sure death.

D. R. Khashaba

Friday, September 11, 2009


Here's another piece I wrote some time ago but did not post to my weblog:


Can philosophy help us overcome the current economic upheaval? For most people philosophy is at best a harmless pastime for the idle, without bearing on the practical problems of life. Professional philosophers cannot be exonerated of the guilt of having confirmed this false view and attitude. So we cannot blame those who would dismiss the question as unworthy of serious consideration. But let us give it some thought.
That the speciously glorious magnificence of modern human civilization stood on very shaky grounds should have been evident from the disgraceful disparity between the living conditions in the poorest and the richest regions of the earth. But only exceptional individuals here and there could see that, and when those spoke, their words fell on ears deafened by the din of modern life — until the world was plunged into the present economic crisis.
But is it not a mistake – indeed the most fateful kind of self-deception – to see this as an economic crisis? It may bare the chicanery of economists who tricked us with their esoteric and mystifying lingo into believing that theirs was a secure science that guaranteed continued success and prosperity. But that is not all. The roots of the economic problem strike deep into the infected soil of false values and a diseased philosophy of life.
The Booker Prize-winning novelist Ben Okri commenting on the crisis (TimesOnline, October 30, 2008: ) opens his insightful article with these words: “The crisis affecting the economy is a crisis of our civilization.” Further on he states that the only hope “lies in a fundamental re-examination of the values” that we have been living by. Again he says, “Our future depends not on whether we get through this, but on how deeply and truthfully we examine its causes.” These are wise words and what Okri says in depicting the lack of vision in the contemporary human scene is no less wise.
But who is to carry out the deep and truthful examination of causes, the fundamental re-examination of values? On the face of it, this is a task for philosophy: but quite apart from the fact that our academic and professional philosophers are of all people the least concerned with the real problems of life, I do not believe that philosophy proper, philosophy as such, is equipped to deal with specific practical issues. In the closing chapter of my Let Us Philosophize (1998, 2008) I wrote:
Directly, philosophy has no contribution to make to the ordering of human society. Indirectly, the role of philosophy in the ordering of human society is immense and indispensable; immense beyond measure and absolutely indispensable, but it must always be and can only be indirect, because philosophy can only work on the individual and from within the individual.
The present confoundment of the human condition is at bottom, as Okri asserts, a crisis of civilization, or, as I prefer to put it, a crisis of culture. At one point in his article, Okri delivers a truly oracular pronouncement: “What is most missing in the landscape of our times is the sustaining power of myths that we can live by.” This sums a view that I have been putting forward in all my writings but that it is not possible to expound adequately within the confines of this paper. To put it as plainly as it is possible to do so in a few words: We need a philosophy that affirms the value of our inner reality — a reality that the outward-looking sciences are blind to and that the yonder-looking dogmatic religions mutilate and smother; a reality that only genuine philosophy and poetry and art can present, but only clothed in myth, since in its essence it is ineffable.
When I say this I am immediately bounced upon by those who believe that only positive, objective, empirical knowledge, arrived at by the methods of science, has validity and utility. But don’t they see where our marvellous scientific knowledge and our astounding technological capabilities, divorced of true wisdom, have landed us? As Ben Okri has it: “Material success has brought us to a strange spiritual and moral bankruptcy.”
Allow me to once more to reproduce words from an article ( I wrote a long time before the present crisis loomed:
The human world is in very bad shape. There is abject poverty, disease, ignorance, misery, side by side with abundance, waste, astounding technology — I need not go on. Our politicians and economists play games in their artificial, closed systems of unquestioned fictions of expediency, power, market values, economic forces — all of which are worshipped more blindly than any supernatural god has ever been. The world of human beings must be re-formed on a wiser and more just basis.
We need a culture that gives priority to human dignity and integrity, to love and humaneness and the sense of beauty, and philosophy will be at the very heart of that culture.
D. R. Khashaba
Cairo, Egypt


This is one of a number of pieces which I found on my computer, which I do not seem to have posted to my weblog before:

Comment on “Born believers: How your brain creates God” by Michael Brooks, New Scientist, 04 February 2009.I will indulge my inveterate habit of reacting to what I sense (rightly or wrongly) to be assumptions underlying the title of a piece of writing and then proceed to comment on the argument of the writer as I read on. Mr Michael Brooks heads his article with the title “Born believers: How your brain creates God”. My first reaction is to ask: Is it our brain or our mind that creates God? Perhaps Mr Brooks sees no difference between the alternatives or possibly he may find the mind version of the question meaningless. But I contend that there is all the difference between a brain-created God and a mind-created God. I maintain that a brain, as brain, bereft of all mind-created ideas, may at best produce a sensation, a feeling, a vague urge, but not any thought. I restrain myself from peregrinating further: I have not yet read a word of what Mr Brooks has written beyond the title. The first two paragraphs of the article confirm my suspicion that Mr Brooks fails to distinguish mind and brain. We are told that “human beings have a natural inclination for religious belief” and then that our brains “effortlessly conjure up an imaginary world of spirits, gods and monsters” and then again that “our minds are finely tuned to believe in gods”. So apparently ‘human beings’, ‘brains’, and ‘minds’ are for Mr Brooks interchangeable terms: I think this does not make for clear thinking. I detect another possible confusion behind the statement, “Religious ideas are common to all cultures”. Religious sentiment is possibly ubiquitous and ideas are commonly attached to the sentiments, but the ideas themselves are not commonly shared. The Buddha was deeply religious but he did not believe in any god or gods. Since my position, though far-removed from being monotheist or supportive of any established religion, is directly opposed to that of Mr Brooks, let me state it bluntly. I believe it is not for science to deal with religious belief or religious ideas. When scientists speak of our “religious beliefs” being “hard-wired”, I cannot help feeling that scientists are in as deep a befuddled state of mind as the worst of theologians. Both parties juggle with empty words that they think mean something. (Just as economists were fooling themselves and fooling all of us with their mystifying jargon until their illusionary edifices crumbled in their hands.) The mind – not the brain – poses questions; that is the nature of the mind, not the brain; and the mind produces answers, good or bad, to its questions, because that gives it satisfaction, not because it makes for survival. It is the task of the mind, in its philosophical capacity, to examine those answers, to show them to be reasonable or unreasonable, not to show experimentally that they are “hard-wired” and therefore to be rejected, which is both meaningless and inconsequent. Indeed, if it is our brains that produce belief in God, then that would be as good an argument for the claim that belief is implanted in us by God as for the assertion that it is engendered in us by evolution. It is science tampering with what is not its business that gives support to Creationists and Intelligent-Design propagandists. Only pure philosophy is competent to show what ideas are rational and what irrational. Reductionist scientists, determined to do away with the mind, leave us at the mercy of the mindless. I will not comment on all the arguments presented and all the experiments reported in Mr Brooks’ article. All of these are open to diverse interpretations and all controversy around such questions is futile. My concern is with the fundamental approach involved. Science can tell us how a given phenomenon comes about, but it cannot speak of the meaning or the value of the phenomenon. Early in his article Mr Brooks says that religious ideas “like language and music, … seem to be part of what it is to be human.” I could say that I wholeheartedly endorse that, but I know that what I mean by these words would be very different from what I assume the words mean for Mr Brooks. What I mean is that our dreams, our myths, our fantasies, as well as our most abstract mathematical and astrophysical theoretical constructions are what constitutes our special character as human beings and are what is most worthwhile in us: and all of that is mind, and all of that is our spiritual dimension. It has no being apart from our brain but it is not our brain. Brain is for science to examine and to study; mind with the spiritual realm it encompasses is for philosophy to examine and to study, and I maintain that any mixing of these two harms both science and philosophy. Let me assure all concerned that if “atheism will always be a hard sell” that will only be so when atheism is packaged with reductionist empiricism. Let people be assured that their inner life – the soul if I dare use the anathema word – is what is real and is what is truly worthwhile in them, and they can do without a transcendent God. God as pure idea, the God within them, will be enough for them. That is what I meant when I said at the beginning that a mind-created God is a very different thing from a brain-created God.D. R. KhashabaCairo, Egypt, 04 March 2009.