Monthly Archives: February 2010

Dredging up the Past: Vincent Bugliosi and GWBush Deceptions

“Even the most courageous among us only rarely has the courage for that which he really knows.”

F. Nietzsche, “The Twilight of the Idols”

Logicians, scientists and philosophers often refer to the logical fallacies of inference from false negative (failing to recognize evidence that is available, hence failing to draw the correct conclusion) and inference from false positive (invalidly drawing a conclusion from imagined evidence, that which simply does not exist). If nothing else, the happily departed GW Bush administration gave us great examples of each of these fallacies, the first admissible as a misstep or mistake in reasoning; the second more a case of deceptive tactic of persuasion, than a simple misstep in reasoning.

False Negatives: The GW Bush administrations completely ignoring all the signs of an impending attack on the U.S. by Al Qaeda between Jan 20, 2001 and September 10, 2001

[Investigated and reported by the 9/11 Bi-Partisan Commission, an investigation opposed by GW Bush and hindered at every turn by the administration’s lack of cooperation. ]

False Positives: All the false ‘evidence’ touted by the GW Bush administration for claiming that

a) there was a connection between the Saddam Hussein Iraqi government and the al Qaeda terrorists who attacked on 9/11 and their leader, Osama bin Laden; and

b) Iraq possessed WMDs and posed a serious military threat to the United States.

[The “false positives” fallacy was part of a well-coordinated, highly deceptive campaign to persuade Congress and the American People that an invasion of Iraq was required.]

But, of course, all of this deception by the Bush administration is history now; and we should move on to current challenges and problems instead of dredging up the past. GW Bush is gone. Forget about him! Right?

Vincent Bugliosi does not agree. He reminded me of these shameful acts (call them fallacies if you like) by the GW Bush administration, and reminded me also about the shameful capitulation by Congress, the news media, and citizens in general. He reminded me of the extent to which we became “sheep-like” in our readiness to be misled by propaganda and lies generated by Bush, Cheney, Rice and the rest of that gang.

Bugliosi reminded me of all this is his 2008 publication: The Prosecution of GW Bush for Murder .

Many of you, of course, will be put off by the title (One cannot possibly imagine that our former PODUS might be a murderer?) and will imagine that Bugliosi is a little nutty, an extreme partisan who has published a sensationalist book not worth considering. If that’s your view, you would be dead wrong. By all accounts Bugliosi is neither nutty nor an extreme partisan. He is an excellent attorney, once one of America’s best prosecutors, possessing a logical, rational mind and the courage to say what others should have been saying. But more importantly, Bugliosi is a citizen who still believes in the ideals and promise of America, and who is morally outraged by what GW Bush and company pulled off and apparently will get away with.

Bugliosi offers well developed arguments for each of his conclusions and provides a wealth of evidence in support of those conclusions, reminding us of all that happened (9/11 attacks, the war on terrorism, the 9/11 Commission to investigate the attacks, and Bush’s adventure into Iraq) during the eight years that Bush was in power. The book inserts photographs showing the death, suffering, and destruction resulting from our invasion of Iraq — juxtaposed with photos of our fearless leader, laughing and clowning around, completely unmindful of the consequences of his immoral policies. As he said once, in reply to a reporter’s question, he and Laura had spent a most enjoyable year (the same year of untold death and destruction in Iraq, and the unjust burden and deprivation for our combat personnel and their families).

I almost wish they had chosen an alternative title for the book, as the one his publisher chose comes across as too sensationalist, probably discouraging serious readers. His book deserves a wide readership.

Bugliosi has issued a challenge to our moral conscience, to our commitment to the principle in our laws (nobody is above the law), and to our respect for those who died, who sacrificed, — as a result of Bush’s invasion of Iraq. What answer do we have for not responding? I can only think of the utilitarian answer: more harm than good would result to the nation from going after Bush, Cheney and Rice.

What would it do to the collective psyche of the approximately 50% of voters who elected that team – Bush & Cheney – to lead the nation in 2000 and 2004? What would it say about our election process if those people elected to the White House were later indicted and convicted (hopefully) of murder? As the old cliché puts it, What would it do the fabric of the nation?

Others would point out that there are many more pressing problems to deal with; that going after Bush and Cheney would be disruptive, both politically and socially; and might even frustrate the new administration’s efforts to deal with the gargantuan crises left over by Bush-Cheney.

On the other hand, the nation’s integrity – moral and legal integrity — is at issue. The principle that no person is above the law is at issue. The victims of Bush’s immoral, disastrous war policy cry out for justice and honesty on our part.

Very few are clean in this matter. An overwhelming majority of people, the Congress, the news media, and our valued institutions (religions, educational, legal, philosophical) were persuaded by the official propaganda and went along with Bush-Cheney-Rice-Rumsfeld. We became war mongers! Bush-Cheney acted in our name, the citizens of the USA. Now we (collective agents) are obligated to set things right. GW Bush, Cheney, C. Rice must be brought to justice. They lied, deceived, and abused their power —- and managed to persuade Congress, the news media, and the American people to support their military invasion of a country that was no threat to the U.S. They took advantage of the 9/11 attacks, fear of more terrorist attacks, and peoples’ fear of being branded soft on terrorism.

Our valued institutions — religious, legal, philosophical, educational — failed when all this was happening.

Very few religious or political leaders came out in opposition to the war enthusiasts. Where were our sociologists and philosophers? Very few voiced opposition, and that which was heard was mostly muted and ignored. Our news media, both print and electronic, who are supposed to be “watchdogs” against abuse of power by our officials, failed miserably. Instead of critical analysis and evaluation of policy, they became the “cheering section” for Bush-Cheney.

Does the Bugliosi book suffer because it is merely dredging up old issues, which should best be left alone?

No! The issue of national integrity is not old. The issues of justice and examination of war crime are not old. The need to recognize and compensate the victims of the misguided war policy is not old. The need to examine and re-examine the events that led to our national disaster is not old.

An Exchange of views on ‘Consciousness’

Recently one of my philosophical correspondents and I engaged in the following exchange regarding the concept of consciousness. I offer part of that exchange below with no implication that anything was resolved. At best, we raise the issue of consciousness and touch upon some of the consequential puzzles.

Call him the “S-Factor.” Call me “Moi”

“My consciousness of what I am doing is irrefutable evidence of the existence of consciousness.”

In other words, you claim that the following inference is sound:
1. I am conscious of what I am doing (viz. keying in a sentence).
2. Hence, consciousness exists.

I would agree if all you mean by “consciousness exists” is that there are beings (myself, in this example) who are capable of consciousness; i.e., there are beings (biological beings) who are capable of being conscious of things.

But this means that your valid inference above shows can be restated:
3. I am conscious of what I am doing (viz. keying in a sentence).
4. Hence, there exists a being capable of being conscious. (Or a being capable of conscious states; or, as you might prefer, a being capable of consciousness)

My awareness what I am doing is irrefutable evidence of the existence of a being (namely, myself) capable of being conscious of something or other. The inference then becomes rather trivial. Moreover, one can argue that ‘consciousness’ in this sense is a biological concept insofar as it refers to the capability of a biological being.

Isn’t it true that if I can explain the evolution of beings capable of conscious states I have explained the evolution of ‘consciousness’?

The alternative is to argue that when you claim that ‘consciousness’ exists you’re saying more than simply “beings who are capable of conscious states exist.” But this seems to imply that ‘consciousness’ is an entity or property over-and-above the reality of beings who can have conscious states, that it is “a strongly emergent property of organisms,” as you state it. “Consciousness, at least, is a strongly emergent property of organisms. ”

When you state that consciousness exists are you saying more than I say if I were to say: “Conscious beings (namely, persons) exist”?

Obviously, explaining how animals capable of complex conscious states evolved is a difficult job. But in my opinion it is the job of explaining the evolution of beings (animals) with complex brains and sense faculties, capable of being conscious of their surroundings and eventually capable of self-consciousness and reflection. It is not the job of explaining the “strongly emergent property of consciousness,” with the suggestion that consciousness is something apart from the evolved capability of biological beings.

You pose the question: When you state that consciousness exists are you saying more than I say if I were to say: “Conscious beings (namely, persons) exist”?

The answer to the question is no. I am not saying more than you would be saying if you were to say that conscious beings exist.

Obviously, explaining how animals capable of complex conscious states evolved is a difficult job. But in my opinion it is the job of explaining the evolution of beings (animals) with complex brains and sense faculties, capable of being conscious of their surroundings and eventually capable of self-consciousness and reflection.

Yes. That’s the job. But is it possible? That remains to be seen. Meanwhile, if we keep using the term “consciousness” but are unable to explain this property in terms of lower level processes, we are at least treating it as a pragmatically emergent property. Furthermore, if we think that we really do have this property, that it is not a mere fiction, we are treating it as strongly emergent.

It is not the job of explaining the “strongly emergent property of consciousness,” with the suggestion that consciousness is something apart from the evolved capability of biological beings.

The phrase “strongly emergent property of consciousness” does not carry the suggestion that consciousness is something apart from an evolved capability of biological beings. In fact, the term “property” in the phrase tells us that we are not talking about a substance in its own right, but about a property of a substance. But until the explanation of the origin of this property is given, it’s an open question how these beings got this property. Any explanation we could give would have to be in terms of some sort of natural process (otherwise we wouldn’t consider it a legitimate explanation), but until such an explanation is given we can’t just assume that there is such a process.

Yes, but I still have a problem with your way of stating things, rather your way of framing things. Your way of stating the problem certainly suggests that consciousness is some type of entity (even if you qualify it as a property). The very fact that you assume that there’s a significant issue as to whether it exists or not, suggests to me that you’re leaning very heavily to the idea that consciousness is not simply another capability of human beings, but is something unique (maybe even mysterious). After all, you include an argument demonstrating “irrefutable evidence of the existence of consciousness.” In my previous email, I tried to show that this sounds very strange when you substitute for “consciousness”, “persons who are capable of consciousness.” Is this something that is subject to doubt so that one has to produce arguments demonstrating “the irrefutable evidence that conscious persons exist”?

Also, I question your assumption that “consciousness” is not a biological concept. Many commentators and researchers argue that it is. I realize that this is a debatable issue; but I don’t concede that the consensus is not (ultimately) biological in nature. Again, I believe your assumption is part of an effort (maybe subconscious!) to differentiate “consciousness” as something over-and-above the other unquestioned capacities (abilities) of persons.

You ask whether it is even possible to explain consciousness in biological terms, and again, suggest that this may not even be possible. A number of people in the neurological, cognitive, and psychological sciences have been working this project. Some have even written books. Do such explanatory theories succeed? Maybe not yet, but surely such theories are possible and do much to clarify the issue. Why would you suggest that such a project is not even possible? If not possible, do you then set “consciousness” aside as another profound mystery?

Does Morality Require a Transcendent Order?


A number of people (writers like Dostevsky, for example) have been struck with the “insight” that if God does not exist, then everything is permitted. Another way of stating it: If God does not exist, there is no distinction between good and evil; we’re left in a state of moral chaos in which persons do whatever they can get away with. And no moral law is available to base any moral judgment against the powerful predator, who would destroy and devour the weak. The prevalent condition would be one of extreme relativism and social chaos; morality is whatever any subject cares to define it to be; no one has any basis for moral condemnation of strong monsters, who would have their way with the rest of us.

But obviously everything is not permitted; i. e., we have strong moral sanctions against a broad array of evil actions. We judge against and imprison the criminal predator not simply because we have a system of criminal justice but also because we acknowledge very strong moral rules against the type of action that criminal predators carry out. In other words, we recognize standards of moral behavior that qualify as moral law. Some would even characterize such moral rules as reflecting a moral order in our world.

However, moral order or moral law suggests a supreme moral authority who establishes the basis (objective basis) for moral law. Otherwise, we have the pressing question concerning an objective standard for our moral judgments. But we need the objective standard, or we are thrown into the moral chaos that extreme relativism brings with it.

I believe this is the gist of the argument that some advance for God’s existence on the evidence of our moral experience and moral sensibility. I shall argue that this argument is not sound.

The argument could be stated as follows:

1. If it is false that (God exists), then everything is permitted.

2. But it is false that (Everything is permitted)

3. Hence, it is true that (God exists)) [i.e., false that false that ( God exists).]

(A simple modus tollens argument.)

Of course, the first premise is the key to the argument and the one that any critic would scrutinize. Why should we accept it as a true proposition? Certainly it is not self-evident or an analytical truth. How could anyone ever make a compelling case for the truth of that premise?
The premise expresses a sub-argument:
1) Suppose that God does not exist;
2) It would follow, that everything would be permitted.

But this is compelling only if we already assume that a moral check on human behavior is possible only when there’s a supernatural moral authority to “back up” those moral checks. This simply begs the question. (Certainly if the possibility of any kind of morality rests on the existence of a supreme moral authority, then we would accept the premise as true. But this simply moves the issue one step back.)

As stated, the argument begs the question. For the first premise is no more clearly true (have a higher likelihood of being true) than the conclusion. It begs the question in the same way that an argument having the premise “If God did not exist, there would be no world” begs the question. Why should anyone looking for a rationally compelling argument for God’s existence accept that premise?

What else could the proponent (of moral authoritarianism) claim? Maybe something like: “We cannot make any sense of our moral values unless we see them as ultimately grounded in a supernatural, value-assigning deity.” Of course, here the main problem is one of showing that no one (including proponents of a secular morality) can make sense of moral values on naturalistic terms. (This is has not been demonstrated so as to satisfy the neutral observer.)

Often this controversial proposition is the basis for the claim that non-believers (atheists, agnostics, secular humanists) have no basis for being morally conscientious or making moral judgments of any kind. For (it is held) non-believers have no rational basis for distinguishing between good and evil.

Apparently, here the proposition ‘God exists’ has been replaced by the proposition ‘Pedro believes that God exists’,
and the negative proposition
‘God does not exist’ has been replaced by the proposition
‘Samuel does not believe that God exists’.

Thus, from the perspective of the non-theist:
‘Samuel does not believe that God exists’ implies that from Samuel’s perspective, everything is permitted.

A corollary argument is often advanced:
1. For any person ‘P’ such that P is a non-theist, the implication is that P is an extreme, moral relativist.

2. ‘P’ is an extreme moral relativist’ implies ‘P’ lacks any rational basis for moral judgment or moral value.’

3. Amos is a non-theist
4. Hence, Amos has no rational basis for making any moral judgment.
Corollary: Amos does not have a rational basis for distinguishing between good and evil.

(From a rational perspective, Amos would have to accept quietly the actions of the criminal, predator, or the perpetrator of genocide.)

By such line of thinking, the non-theist is made to appear as a moral nihilist and even worse, as someone who (if he is a consistent non-theist) would tolerate the worst evil and the most heinous crimes imaginable).

We also find the following corollary propositions:
• Only the theist with his position of moral authoritarianism has an objective standard for making moral judgments and distinguishing between good and evil.
• Those who believe in God as the ground for moral law can discern what God’s moral law is, and thus make correct moral judgments.
• Those who believe in God can rationally justify their moral beliefs.
• Those who believe in God as the Universal Moral Authority will generally agree among themselves as to what is morally good and what is morally bad.

Unless our talk in moral philosophy is empty, we must allow that moral beliefs and moral judgments that we attribute to people are translatable into action. Hence, if we say that the non-theist is compelled to a position of extreme moral relativism, it must be the case that the non-theist in significant ways acts as an extreme moral relativist.* But we know that is not the case. As many non-theists as theists are morally conscientious and far from extreme relativists on matters of morality. Moreover, if we say that the theist (the moral authoritarian) makes good distinctions between right and wrong and holds correct (true) moral beliefs, then this too should translate into action.

So we could consider these propositions:

• Simply by virtue of his belief in God, a person tends to moral excellence.
• People who believe in God agree among themselves as to what is morally good and what morally bad.

Certainly it would be most difficult to defend these as being true general propositions. I am sure that any person of religious faith or any sectarian, who has not completely gone to sleep intellectually, would have to admit that the propositions are doubtful one, if not outright false. Certainly anyone with simple knowledge of history and current events would at least question these general propositions.

Of course, the final response to the advocate of supernatural moral authoritarianism is that all believers fall short of their extravagant claims. It is false that morality can only come by way of transcendent authority. It is even doubtful anyone’s moral beliefs are really based on the commands of a supernatural law-giver; i.e., the entire squadron of theologians and religious philosophers who argue the point have never made a rationally compelling case for their doctrinal assumption that a Deity exists, much less that this Deity is the ultimate, transcendent authority for all humanity’s moral beliefs. All that they can claim, with some rational justification, is that faith in the authority of a deity, as conceived and characterized by their religious tradition, is the basis for their moral beliefs. In short, their morality is based on their image of God. (And even this, only sometimes.)

One could even propose that the theist shares the same condition (the human condition) with the rest of humanity: Ultimately all moral beliefs are grounded in human experience, and reflection on this experience (in our philosophies and religious scriptures, for example), resulting in certain moral rules. Like the rest of us, theists and super-naturalists are on their own when it comes to morality. They don’t have any access to a transcendental authority who will point them to universal, eternal moral law.

* Surely this has exceptions: a professor of meta-ethics could reach the conclusion that only a position of moral relativism is rationally tenable, yet in his day-to-day conduct, act as if he believed in certain universal moral principles. After all, there is a difference between the intellectual view and moral behavior. Ideally we would like for these to be consistent; but with many people they are not.

George Orwell’s call for honesty and clarity

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets; this is called pacification.

George Orwell, from his 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language”

Language, Clarity, & Honesty

A few years ago a fellow humanist, Harry Becker, passed me some LATimes articles (11/04/07) under the heading “WHY ORWELL MATTERS.” The articles dealt with themes found in George Orwell’s 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language.” Mr. Becker suggested that perhaps I could write a short article on Orwell’s essay and circled the following sentence by Orville Schell:

Above all what is needed is to let the meaning choose the words, and not the other way around.

(Schell’s LATimes article, “Follies of Orthodoxy”, 11/4/07)

Schell’s advice was puzzling to me; so I looked into Orwell’s essay for help. Mr. Orwell stresses the need for clear, simple language that uses words evoking concrete images instead of relying on abstract, Latin-based terms that fail to convey clear meaning. If we take his advice, our primary aim (in any discourse) will be clarity of meaning; whenever practical, we will choose simple terms which convey concrete images, instead of plugging in some obscure jargon to do the work for us, i.e. not let the words ‘choose’ the meaning.
To illustrate his point, Orwell imagines a professor defending Soviet totalitarianism, who is reluctant to make the straight-forward assertion that Soviet policy allowed the “killing off your opponents when you can get a good result from doing so,” and chooses instead to make the long-winded, obfuscating statement:

While freely conceding that the Soviet regime exhibits certain features which the humanitarian may be inclined to deplore, we must, I think, agree that a certain curtailment of the rights to political opposition is an unavoidable concomitant of transitional periods, and that the rigors which the Russian people have been called upon to undergo have been amply justified in the sphere of concrete achievement.

(Orwell, 1946)

Not only is this pretentious and obscure, it also shows a speaker’s dishonesty and insincerity. As Orwell wrote,

The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns to …long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting ink.

(Orwell, 1946)
But this abuse of language often evolves into a more sinister use of language. As Orwell illustrated in various books, political propaganda routinely converts ‘war’ into ‘peace,’ and ‘peace’ into ‘war’; critics of government policy are branded as subversives and enemies of the state.
But it is not only in politics and defense of war policy that we use language routinely to twist the facts and transform falsehood into truth, and the converse. This happens too frequently in any discourse (spoken or written) in which ideology and value judgments play prominent roles; for example, discourse concerning economic systems, or governmental policies regulating individual activity, or issues like the right-to-life vs. right-to-choose, or those concerning the teaching of Darwinian evolution in the schools, or the separation of church and state, or the various issues regarding the opposition between religious and secular values.
In my field of philosophy, some people are very aware of the need for clarity and honesty in discourse, since a fair amount of philosophical literature has traditionally been written in complicated, sometimes very obscure language. Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote concerning a few German philosophers, “They muddy up the water to make it appear deep.” Unfortunately, large areas of philosophical writing, especially in areas of metaphysics, religious apologetics, and political thought, can be described as projects that “muddy the water” to make it appear deep.
There probably is no guarantee that we can completely avoid the abuse of language in politics and ideological debate or the sophistry of certain philosophical styles. But, we can heed Mr. Orwell’s advice and hopefully not fall too often into those ‘muddy, stagnant waters,’ which can choke off any meaningful dialogue. One way is give ourselves the discipline of a formal study or self-study course in critical thinking. In addition, extensive, critical reading of relevant works of history, philosophy (the clear kind), the sciences, and literature can also help.

No Conflict between Science and Religion?

From the Associated Press, March 3, 2009
* Vatican official calls atheist theories ‘absurd’
Cardinal Levada: No conflict between evolution science and faith in God
ROME – A Vatican cardinal said Tuesday that the Catholic Church does not stand in the way of scientific realities like evolution, though he described as “absurd” the atheist notion that evolution proves there is no God.


Is Religious Faith compatible with the Evolutionary Sciences?

The good Cardinal Levada may be sure of his position (*See above), but there are reasons for questioning this popular view that science is compatible with religious faith. The view of “harmony between science and faith” can be restated in terms of the following claims:

• A significant number of scientists are also people of religious faith and belief in God.
• The sciences do not disprove God’s existence.
• Being a scientist and doing scientific work is consistent with believing in God.
• Naturalism is a philosophy that is incompatible with supernatural religion, but science is not committed to naturalism as a philosophy.
(This is part of the general view that science and religion are separate endeavors and have nothing to do with each other, e.g. Stephen J. Gould’s idea of science and religion comprising Separate Magisteria.)

Let’s consider these claims. First, the alleged compatibility based on the fact that many scientists are also believers in God results in a very weak sense of “compatibility.” As Jerry A. Coyne says, it’s much like saying that marriage is compatible with adultery because some married people practice adultery. Or like saying that being a Roman Catholic priest is compatible with paedophilia because a number of priests sexually abuse young people, or like saying that investment counselling is compatible with fraudulence because some counsellors turn out to be frauds. People, like Coyne or Richard Dawkins, who argue that science is not compatible with supernaturalism, are surely aware that some scientists cannot shake free of supernaturalism of some kind. What they argue is that a correct understanding of the scientific approach and knowledge implies a rejection of supernaturalism.

Second, the sciences are not in the business of proving or disproving God’s existence; but any look at the Western history — the rise of science and enlightenment thinking — reveals that the sciences have built (and continue to build) a strong case against any super-naturalistic view of nature, of history and society.

Third, it is a very weak argument to claim compatibility because scientists, like Kenneth Miller and Francis S. Collins, find belief in a god to be consistent with their scientific work. It might be true that neither evolutionary biology nor genetics proves there is no God; thus, belief in such an entity is not directly contradicted by knowledge gained in biology or a genetics. But it is also true that other scientists might hold bizarre beliefs consistent with their scientific work, e.g. some might find belief in ‘Voodoo arts’ to be consistent, some reincarnation, and some find that New Age Mysticism is consistent with their work as chemists. In short, the fact that a Miller or a Collins finds supernaturalism consistent with their science does nothing to show any compatibility between science proper and supernaturalism, unless we also admit a ‘compatibility’ with all forms of occultism, belief in magic or a variety of other bizarre beliefs.

Fourth, this relates to the distinction between naturalism as method and as philosophy, a distinction popularized by Eugenie Scott. As philosopher M. Pigliucci states it, rather than involving philosophical assumptions regarding the nature of reality, methodological naturalism is just a “provisional and pragmatic” position that scientists take in order to do their work. Unlike philosophical naturalism, the methodological type does not involve any denial of the supernatural possibility. Thus, we have scientists like Kenneth Miller pointing out that scientists do not take a vow of philosophical naturalism, but only commit themselves to the methodological kind. He tells us that all science requires is methodological naturalism, and that we “live in a material world,’ and use “the materials of nature to study the way nature works.” Hence, science is limited to “purely naturalistic explanations, because only those are testable, and only those have validity as science.” (From “The Reality Club,” comments on Jerry Coyne Essay, Seeing and Believing,”

But according to Miller, such commitment does not commit the scientist to a philosophy (viz. naturalism) which denies the supernatural possibility. Thus, religious faith, Roman Catholicism in Miller’s case, is quite safe from erosion by the force of scientific knowledge.

Are people like Miller and Scott correct? Are the sciences correctly characterized as essentially naturalistic method, with no implication of a naturalistic philosophy?

The answer is a resounding “NO” according to a significant number of scientists, theoreticians of the sciences, and philosophers of science. Scientists like Richard Dawkins, Victor Stenger, Taner Edis and others have written books arguing the non-compatibility thesis. Philosophers like Daniel Dennett have also argued impressively against the compatibility claim. A recent article in “The New Republic” by evolutionary scientist, Jerry A. Coyne, (“Seeing and Believing,” February 04, 2009) presents interesting and telling arguments against compatibility. A materialistic explanation of nature, he tells us, is not a philosophical assumption of science but is an idea which has resulted from years of successful scientific research. In other words, the work of science supports the view that nature is to be explained in materialistic terms, completely devoid of reference to the supernatural. In short, the sciences and philosophical naturalism are more closely tied together than Miller and Scott suggest. Mario Bunge, in another recent article agrees [See his “The philosophy behind pseudoscience", Skeptical Inquirer 30 (4) 29-27 (2006)]. He tells us that every intellectual endeavor, including science, has an underlying philosophy. He states that “the philosophy behind evolutionary biology is naturalism (or materialism) together with epistemological realism.” He adds that “by contrast, the philosophy behind creationism (whether traditional or “scientific”) is supernaturalism (the oldest variety of idealism).”

Given the arguments advanced by these people, the idea that science can be characterized as pure methodology, devoid of naturalistic philosophy, is very questionable. Even Miller, when he argues the case of natural selection against so-called “intelligent design,” does not take evolutionary biology to be pure method. He cites the well-grounded theory and body of knowledge established by the science to make his case against the “Intelligent Design” proponents. But he stops there; he does not use the same biological findings to raise question regarding Christian theism. However, his work and arguments contra creationism and Intelligent Design demonstrate that he really does not limit himself, as a scientist, to method. Granted, we can make the philosophical distinction between method and philosophy; but ultimately this distinction doesn’t do much in the debate between naturalists and super-naturalists, other than offer some psychological comfort to the super-naturalist.

In conclusion, the touted distinction between methodological and philosophical naturalism does little to show that science and religion are compatible. The same can be said regarding the claims that “science does not disprove God,” that many scientists are also persons of faith and find belief in God compatible with their work in the sciences. None of these makes much headway in showing that the sciences are compatible with a commitment to a supernatural view of reality.

Aren’t Agnostics Different from Atheists?

An intellectual combatant once denigrated his opponent by claiming that the opponent did not even differentiate between atheism and agnosticism. Prima facie, this distinction is obvious; even a fifth grader can understand it. However, the opponent might have downplayed the differences only to focus attention on the similarities between atheistic and agnostic views.

Concerning the “difference” between atheism and agnosticism

Most people recognize the difference between the atheistic and agnostic position. Atheism, they point out, denies the existence of any deity. On the other hand, agnosticism only denies knowledge of a god’s existence, allowing for the possibility that a god might exist.

Accordingly, the agnostic is supposed to “leave open the possibility of a god’s existence; whereas the atheist allegedly shuts the door on that possibility (* See note below). We could imagine the agnostic saying something like this: “We don’t have knowledge of a god, but there could be one. Who knows?” And imagine also the atheist making the strong (loud?) assertion that “there is no god!” On this view, the agnostic is seen as a tentative, uncommitted nonbeliever, a “fence-sitter” (someone who cannot decide until he sees which the way “metaphysical winds” blow); whereas the atheist is depicted as intransigent (even dogmatic?) in his declaration that there is no god.

This is the conventional, man-in-the-street-view of atheism and agnosticism. This is fine for people anxious to get on with the business of living and impatient with nitpicking, philosophical distinctions. But this common-sense picture tends to ignore the important similarities between the atheism and agnosticism. Moreover, the conventional view can result in the type of caricatures noted above.

I shall emphasize the similarity, rather than the difference, between the two “non-believer” positions. Admittedly there are some people who call themselves “agnostic” but retain their belief in a god. A more accurate designation for that view would be “fideist,” or the view that recognizes humans’ lack knowledge but retains faith in a deity. However, the more common form of agnosticism implies a lack of belief in a deity. Like atheism, it rejects belief in a deity. The agnostic philosophy is “a-theistic” insofar as it omits deity. Like atheism, this form of agnosticism expresses a secular approach (to life) devoid of deity.

In this context you will find some people arguing that the correct use of the term “atheist” is to denote a philosophical perspective which is devoid of deity, i.e., “a-theistic” inasmuch as it excludes belief in a god. The argument, then, is that “a-theism,” taken in this sense, does not logically entail the metaphysical, categorical declaration that there is no God. The debate would then focus on the correct meaning of “atheist” and “atheism.” (“Positive atheism” denies existence of deity; “negative atheism” proceeds without reference to deity.)

For now let us bypass this debate over the semantics of “atheism.” We can admit that ordinarily the term “atheist” connotes the denial that a god exists. In this regard the conventional view does not mislead us. (Atheists tend to deny the reality of a deity; agnostics simply omit belief in such ‘reality.’) But let us set aside for now the distinction between the atheistic and the agnostic views. Instead, let us focus on the similarity between them.

Dismiss the notion that the agnostic is really just an uncommitted, “fence-sitter.” Surely many agnostics are not. For such people, agnosticism does not imply a tentative, uncommitted position. Instead it connotes a strong commitment to rationality and the “ethics of inquiry.” Here imagine the agnostic applying W. K. Clifford’s ethical principle that we’re not to believe anything unless we have adequate evidence to support the belief. Accordingly, many agnostics reject belief in a god as neither a rationally nor an ethically justifiable position. This certainly is not the view of a tentative, “fence-sitter.”

Agnostics emphasize belief in a supernatural being is outside the scope of human knowledge, and point out that nobody has ever provided adequate, objective grounds for such belief. In other words, our agnostic doesn’t simply deny knowledge of the existence of a deity. He denies that we have any rational grounds to support belief in a deity. Some agnostics will even say that, with respect to specific “gods” (e.g., the God of Judeo-Christianity) their position is “atheistic” in the strong sense. No such ‘god’ ever existed. Agnostics tend to agree with atheists that all talk of the supernatural and deity is vague, and that the proposition that God exists is far from clear, but even when relatively clear, it is by and large a groundless proposition.

What about the atheist? Well, if he is a rational individual, he does not simply issue the loud declaration: “There is no god.” On the contrary, he will point out that (despite centuries of theologies and apologetics) we lack knowledge of any deity nor anything remotely close to rational grounds for belief in a deity. He might also question the meaning and coherence of propositions which assert that a deity exists and has specifiable properties.

Here the atheist is in full agreement with the agnostic. Both take the rationally-based position which denies any grounds for deity. Their difference seems to be one of emphasis, with one emphasizing that there is no deity because there are no rational grounds for a deity, and the other emphasizing our utter lack of knowledge and compelling evidence for a deity’s existence, and proceeding as if there were none. For all practical purposes, the agnostic “rejects” deity in much the same way as the atheist. He simply is not as emphatic in expressing his rejection.

* In this connection, consider the phrase “possibility of god’s existence.” On the conventional view, the atheist supposedly denies the possibility of god’s existence; whereas the agnostic leaves the door open on this possibility. (Philosophers who defend Christian theism make much of this alleged “possibility of God’s existence.” Likewise, those who argue that science and empirical inquiry cannot disprove the existence of God, also emphasize this notion of the possibility of God’s existence.)

Formalists emphasize possibility as logical possibility. Here ‘the possibility of X’ means ‘X does not entail a contradiction.’ So the possibility of god’s existence means that the proposition ‘god exists’ does not entail a contradiction.

Some philosophers characterize logical possibility in terms of the concept of possible worlds. Here the proposition ‘Possibly X exists’ is translated as ‘There is a possible world, call it “Tangerine” in which X exists,’ without implying that possible world “Tangerine” is the actual world.

But as Daniel Dennett points out (See his Darwin’s Dangerous Idea) there are other kinds of possibilities. We can speak of something being physically possible (or impossible); or biologically possible (or impossible). It is physically impossible that I high jump (without assistance) a twenty-foot high barrier, although it is logically possible (no self contradiction). A biologist will tell us that it is biologically impossible for a virgin to give birth, although the proposition asserting a virgin birth is not a logical contradiction.

Defenders of the theistic view often demand that critics of belief in a deity prove that the existence of such a deity is impossible. Some say that critics have to disprove G’s existence. Obviously, this demands an awful lot. But to even understand their requirement, one should clarify the type of impossibility at issue here. Is it logical impossibility? Then one would have to show that the ‘god-exists’ proposition entails a contradiction. Is the possibility at issue a physical possibility? Probably not, since the deity is supposed to be a spiritual being. The physical possibility would have to apply to the alleged interaction between this spiritual being and the human, material world. Here the skeptic would have a more manageable task, arguing that such interaction is physically impossible.

From the other direction, the theists might be encouraged to find that the skeptic has not proven the impossibility of his god’s existence. But this merely implies that the theist can claim nothing beyond the logical possibility of his god’s existence, which is not a very secure ground on which to stand.

Contrary to philosophers who focus on the issue of possibility or impossibility of deity, scientifically-based writers (including certain philosophers) prefer to state the problem (of existence of deity) in terms the strength or weakness of the case that one can make for existence of a deity. What rational grounds or empirical evidence can be connected (in some way) to the claim that a deity is real? Here the scientific-based skeptic finds that the defenders of theism have not even managed a weak case in support of their “god’s” existence.

More chewing on the bone of “truth”

“The truth” does not refer to an entity that exists and can be found. But often people speak this way: “The truth is out there. All we have to do is to look for it.”

“The truth” by itself is vague and not very meaningful; it has to be completed by what that truth is about; e.g. the truth about human existence, or the truth about Church history, etc. (…and even then it remains problematic and vague.)

The search for truth, in a philosophical context, might mean the attempt to learn the significance and ultimate character of human existence. Other times, it may mean the attempt to identify those values that define human excellence and the good life. As such, the “search for truth” is value-laden, and the term “truth” is a value term (much like “good” or “sacred”).

A great paradox here is that in those important areas of human concern —viz, religion, morality, politics, history, social thought, etc.— the concept of `truth’ is a very problematic concept. It easily becomes confused (and “infused”) with factors of value judgment and (political and religious) ideological bias.
Typically in the modern age most professional philosophers do not claim to possess “truth” in the sense of wisdom, moral and religious truth, and certainly do not attempt to teach others the road to that truth. The role of the person of wisdom who points others toward truth and the higher good has been claimed by religionists and advocates of popular moral-ethical-political ideologies.
The typical intellectual and scholar would be painfully uncomfortable wearing the “robes of the wise man”; on the other hand, preachers, politicians and even “show biz” celebrities will frequently and comfortably don the robes of wisdom and moral authority.
Subsequently, many rationalists and critical philosophers look with great suspicion and skepticism on anyone claiming to teach wisdom and higher truth.

The “higher truth” is that there is no higher truth. There are only the “human-level” truths that human beings discover, learn and articulate in propositional form.

“Tell me the truth.” She cried, “Where were you last night?”
How could he answer her, since he didn’t have the foggiest …”

He could answer that he was practicing philosophy. That would throw her for a loss.

“Does he expect me to believe that story? might be her reaction. “Whoever heard of spending the night practicing philosophy?”

In this case, to tell the truth is simply to give an honest, factual account of your doings and whereabouts during the period in question. Nothing here should be perplexing; we all know what “truth” means.

“There’s no mystery as to where I was; I had to work overtime last night.”

There also is no mystery in this use of the phrase: “to tell the truth”; it simply means to speak truthfully to the best of one’s ability, to relate the facts.

“Search for truth” is more problematic; as is the phrase “to teach the truth.” Often use of the substantive (on noun) “truth” or “the truth” is problematic, or at least misleading. Use of the adjective “true” and the adverb “truly” or “truthfully” are less problematic.

The proposition that the truth is out there somewhere, and that if we look, we shall find it can be correctly used in the proper context. (For example, as when we don’t know what happened but we’re sure there are ways of learning what happened.) But talk of “the truth being out there” often leads to a misconception.

Often our use of the noun “truth” suggests to people that there’s something called ‘truth’ existing “out there somewhere.” The only thing that is “out there” for us to discover and observe is the world of things, persons, animals, and happenings. (But even with respect to these, some will engage in philosophical debate.)
[Adding to the confusion, people sometimes equate “the Truth” to “God.”]

If the label “truth” does not apply to an entity, what does it apply to? [This is a misleading question and reflects a type of philosophical confusion.]

Maybe we should simply replace every sentence using the term “truth” by one that omits that noun. “He told the truth” is simply another way of saying that “he spoke truthfully” or “he made true assertions.” “We’re trying to learn the truth about this matter” is another way of saying that “we trying to learn what happened or is happening.”

Another thought: In many contexts the label “truth” is often simply a way of commending someone’s assertion, affirmation, statement, claim, etc.. Applying the label does not imply that someone has apprehended part of a mysterious entity called ‘the truth.’ We’re merely acknowledging that he got it right, that he hit the target. It is much like a gold star pasted to a student’s test or essay.

“True” makes sense only in contrast to “false”; and both are modifiers of nouns: reports, stories, propositions, explanations, theories. A report is true when it accurately reports the event in question. It is false when it fails to report the event accurately.

When I witness an event and can report accurately what happened, then my statements regarding describing the event are likely true. When I lack knowledge of what happened and purport to report it anyway, most likely my statements will be false. To say I speak the truth or fail to express the truth is simply another way of stating that I reported things accurately or inaccurately.

In some cases, my claim to speak the truth invites the question as to how I gained the knowledge at issue. In many cases, a valid claim to truth and knowledge go together. Yet we must allow for the occasion when a person makes a truthful statement without possessing the relevant knowledge. (e.g., He made a lucky guess, but surely could not have known.)

The concept of knowledge, understood as propositional knowledge (knowledge that ..), presupposes the concepts of truth and falsehood. I know that DC is snowbound when my belief that DC is snowbound is true and I have good reasons for that belief. My belief that ‘DC is snowbound’ is true makes sense only by contrast to the possibility that it (that belief) could be false.

Does God’s Omniscience Eliminate Human Freedom?

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To assume simply that we can transfer our ordinary language and concepts to a transcendental setting and use them much the same way as we ordinarily use them is at the very least a questionable assumption, betraying a fundamental confusion.

Does God’s Omniscience Imply Lack of Human Freedom?

Suppose there exists an omniscient being (“God”?) who has complete fore-knowledge of all events. This seems logically to imply that no act can possibly be free. For the claim that we acted freely implies that we could have done otherwise, e.g. I attended mass on Sunday morning, but I could have chosen to play golf instead. However, if an omniscient being knew that I would go to mass, than the proposition that ‘I attend mass on Sunday’ is true. On Sunday morning I could not have acted so as to nullify the knowledge possessed by the omniscient being; i.e., I could not act so as to falsify the proposition ‘I attend mass on Sunday.’ Thus, I was not free to do other than what I in fact did. Freedom of action is nothing but a delusion.

This line of argumentation is suspect, to say the least. One way of showing this involves an analogy between our actions as viewed by an omniscient being and the actions of a character in a novel discussed by observers outside the novel.

God’s eye-view of a completed script:

When we ‘view’ things from the perspective of an omniscient being, we imagine an individual’s life-line as already completed. The future is as fixed as the past, and nothing can alter it. (God’s complete foreknowledge has fixed the script that we must follow. For all eternity is was true that I would attend mass on Sunday morning.) Every action on that life-line is fixed, and there’s nothing that the human agent can do to change any part of it. What appear to be open options in the future (mass or golf on Sunday morning?) are already closed (definitely mass!).
By analogy, suppose that there’s a completed script (a novel) that describes a character’s entire existence. Then imagine that we survey the entire story from the outside (God’s eye-view) and see where everything is going. Everything is fully determined. The character-within-the-story plays out his role according to the script, which is final and closed. Consider an example of a small part of the script:
The main character in our story, call him “John,” learns that his employer is commiting fraudulent acts to gain rich government contracts. Now John faces a hard choice. He can either ignore the cheating by his employer, that is, go along quietly and keep his well-paying job; or he can blow the whistle on his employer and face the consequences (likely lose his job, lose the friendship of his co-workers, even be blackballed in the industry so that finding another position would be difficult). After much agonizing and soul searching, John decides to report the fraudulence to the proper authorities. As a result, he loses his job and incurs economic hardships. He is unemployed for a long period and his wife is forced to take a low-paying job herself so they can pay their bills. They lose their house and the marriage suffers. The marriage endures and he enjoys partial, financial recovery, but he definitely loses out in terms of economic and social status. Years later, looking back on his fateful decision to “blow the whistle,” John does not regret his decision. Yes, he paid a heavy price, but he feels he made the right choice and kept his moral integrity intact.

Descent into a Philosophical Confusion:

Now we ask, did John act freely or not? Was he in control of his action and thus responsible for his action? It is clear to me that, when we consider these questions within the context of the story —- the questions make sense and we can coherently debate the answer. We might argue that John did act freely. He chose to blow the whistle on his employer; he was not forced or coerced to act as he did. He knew what he was doing, was in full control of what he did; and most certainly knew that his action would have consequences, maybe negative repercussions. The confusion comes into play when we ask the same questions and attempt to answer them from a perspective outside the story —- as external observers who know how the story turns out. Here the questions do not make any sense. What could we possibly be asking? Whether John, a fictional character, could have diverted from the script as it was been written? Surely this is absurd. From this external perspective it is obvious that the fictional character, John, is defined (all his actions fully determined) by the script as the author has written it. Someone might say that “John” has no ‘choice’ in the matter; that he is a mere puppet fully controlled by someone (author ?) working the strings. But surely these are trivial points and suggest great confusion. From an external perspective, the concepts of ‘freedom,’ ‘being in control,’ and ‘responsibility’ do not even apply..
How could these questions (regarding freedom, control, & responsibility) asked from an external perspective even make any sense? Isn’t it obvious that the concepts of freedom (and lack of), in-control (and out-of-control), and responsibility (no responsibility) get their proper application within the context of the story? From the external perspective, there is no point in asking whether the character “John” could have diverted from the story-line and done otherwise. Only someone terribly confused or simply joking around would even pose such a question. Given our external perspective, we know that the character acts as the script has him acting. But this does negate the possibility, that within the story John could have acted freely. He deliberated and chose the blow the whistle on his employer. In our example, he did have freedom of choice and acted accordingly. That’s why he agonized so much over his choice.
When we ask whether human freedom is compatible with an omniscient being having complete foreknowledge of everything we do, we commit the fallacy of taking things from a god’s-eye-view perspective and assuming that we can unproblematically apply the language of freedom. It is the same confusion shown when someone asks whether a character in a novel could have diverted from the story line laid out by the author? At best, it is a philosophical joke, maybe instructive to a point. At worst, it betrays an astonishing level of confusion and lack of critical thought

Is “truth” a loaded term?

“Truth” is a loaded term, my friend has said. “Let’s avoid it.”

A “loaded term” ? What could he have meant? Maybe that the term is vague and that people give it their own meaning with no guarantee that any two are talking about the same thing.

Sometimes we hear people talk as if truth were relative to the subject. “Your truth is not necessarily my truth.” Of course, this is just short for “truth as I see it” or “my version of truth.”

“Truth” is a term used by different people in different ways. The concept ‘truth’ is a concept applied by different people in different ways.

Consider this proposition: There are many different kinds of truth.

When the term “truth” is shorthand for someone’s (or some group’s) notion of truth, we can see that “truth” is a loaded term.

Often the context clarifies how the term “truth” is being used. A police investigator may need to determine who among a group of witnesses is telling the truth and who is not. Sometimes people tell falsehoods; sometimes they lie; and sometimes they tell the truth. There is no mystery here. The mystery and confusion come in when we hear about a preacher, or a politician, or a mystic who claims to bring us the ‘Truth’. A speculative philosopher may claim to furnish us with the absolute Truth. In these latter cases we should be skeptical.

The term “truth” is sullied so much by frauds of all kinds, preachers, priest, politicians, mystics, hucksters, salesmen, etc. that it should not surprise anyone that honest scientists and critical philosophers tend to avoid using term.

Often the phrase “seeking the truth” merely means that we try to find out what happened, as in “What happened when the German army invaded Poland?” or “Did the defendant assault the victim as the prosecution claims?”
Sometimes we want to say: We speak the truth when our words correspond to the way the world is; or what we say accurately describes the way the world is; or what we say accurately reports what actually happened.

The easy game: Objective reality is there before us, and we simply report it or describe it.

“Seeking the truth” is often shorthand for “seeking to know a specific, local fact”: e.g., that William Clinton was U.S. President in 1995; or that Mt. Everest is over 28,000 feet high; or that the state of Colorado directly borders the state of New Mexico on the north.

The notion of absolute, universal, complete Truth strikes me as something perpetuated by theologians and metaphysicians.

Isn’t truth (any truth) always associated with a knowing subject?

Is “truth” a loaded term?

Suppose we’re trying to find out what happened in dispute between two people who give contradictory accounts. Joe claims that Ben assaulted him; Ben denies it. “They can’t both be telling the truth,” we might say. So we try to determine who told the truth and who spoke falsely. You might say that our job is to try to get at the truth in this matter.

After our investigation we might come up with an account of what actually happened, (Ben did in fact attack Joe) ….”as nearly as we can tell, this seems to be what really occurred.”

Eventually we establish that Joe told the truth and Ben was lying. In such a case, we work to discover the facts, and in so doing we learn what the truth is in this particular case. We learn also who speaks the truth and who does not.

Here we are talking about facts or actual events. (Facts: how things are or happen in the world.)

Such clear-cut, pedestrian cases of ‘truth’ and ‘truth-seeking’ would seem to be unproblematic. Police investigators have to do it daily. Here we would not expect anyone to say that “truth” is a loaded term.


Certainly most people have no problem understanding the difference between fact and fiction. We certainly understand this distinction when it is applied to literature, when we refer to works of fiction and nonfiction. And we understand it when applied to the worlds of drama and movie making. Drama can deal with fictional stories and fictional characters, or it can be about actual, historical persons and recount factual events. A movie can be purely fictional (even a fantasy, e.g., the “Star Wars” series) or it can focus on historical persons and events, even to the extent of being a documentary (e.g. “The Longest Day”).
There’s a clear-cut difference between a biography about Abraham Lincoln and the story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, or any story of fantasy with made-up characters. Surely no one would confuse these two, or dispute the claim that the former falls in the class of nonfiction, (it portrays a historical person and and describes actual events).

However, many other cases are not so simple and clear-cut. A work of fiction (e.g., a novel) can have many factual, historical elements in it (as in a historical novel); and a work that purports to be non-fiction, can actually contain much that is fictional (the author had a political purpose or let his ideological bias carry him away) which is presented as if factual. Consider, for example the controversy surrounding Oliver Stone’s films about the JFK assassination and Richard Nixon.
The distinction between fact and fiction also becomes very problematic in areas such as religion, politics, economics, social philosophy, and moral thought (this is not an exhaustive list by any means). Any area in which the values, bias, and attitude of the writer come into play are areas in which we cannot always be sure that we’re dealing with fact or fiction, history or myth. For example, take any “sacred writing” from any of the major religions: Bible (Old or New Testament), the Koran, etc. . . Can anyone be confident that the events depicted were factual, historical events, or that the persons described are really historical persons? The problem of separating fact from fiction here is great, the controversies old and apparently without end. Not surprisingly, then, many people conclude that the value of such sacred works are independent of their status as works of fiction or nonfiction, fantasy/myth or factuality; i.e. independent of the question of ‘truth.’


“Truth” may strike us a loaded term because we often use it as an evaluative term: a truthful person, a true doctrine, higher truth and so on. It may seem to some that “truth,” like “beauty,” is in the eye of the beholder. What you see as a “higher truth” or a “deeper truth” about human existence I may regard as mere confusion and mystical fluff.

Speculative, philosophical theories sometimes purport to define “truth” in all-comprehensive, metaphysical ways. This should certainly trigger our skeptical sensors.

[Here we have the term “Truth” with an upper case “T” or even all letters in the upper case: “TRUTH”.]

Certainly the way that “truth” is used in religious preachings load the term with doctrinal, ideological baggage. Don’t we often hear Christians say “Jesus is the truth”? Here we might ask how the term “truth” is being used.

A good example of this loaded use of the term “truth” is a Vatican document reported in the L.A. Times on Sept. 6, 2000. This document, which is written by Catholic conservatives, declares that Roman Catholicism is the sole path to salvation, and bases its declaration on the assumption that the Church has grasp of “universal and objective truth.” Such use of the term “truth” leads some scientists and critical rationalists to avoid use of the term, and thus avoid association with the arrogant “defenders of the truth,” those who proclaim that only they and their special group have access to ‘truth.’
[A simple question might stop all these proclamations as to the truth: How exactly did your group acquire knowledge regarding this truth? ]

Religious people and speculative metaphysicians tend to talk about truth in the big sense of “TRUTH,” one that is universal and eternal.

Mathematical ‘truth’ has universal application. Does this qualify as universal, eternal truth?

(With apologies to Nietzsche) Talk of universal, eternal truth is just a substitute for talk of deity. Man cannot relinquish the urge to project his ideals into the objective realm. He projects metaphysical and theological truths. He projects deities.

Most scientists and critical writers avoid talking about truth(s). They simply go about their work of exploration and explanation, analysis and clarification.

Work in the natural sciences means you do not invoke gods, miracles, or metaphysical truth. The natural scientist just goes about his work.

There may be a connection between the philosopher’s inclination to system-building and the urge to invoke ‘Truth’ on a grand scale.
However, the work of science, empirical inquiry, the testing of hypotheses, and such does not fit well with systems and notions of truth on a grand scale.

Pseudo Explanation & The Spirit of Darwin


I once heard a woman, call her Diane, say that the only time she felt sorry for atheists was when she considered the problem faced by an atheistic parent when trying to answer the questions that curious children ask.  Her example was the question, Why is the sky blue?   The way she put it was that, at least, other parents (i.e., theistic parents) could easily answer the child’s question by saying that God made it that way, i.e. God made sky blue.  But what was the poor atheistic parent to say?   Something along the lines of  “….well, the sky is blue because of the chemical composition of the atmosphere and the effect of the sunlight hitting it … (so on and so forth)”  ?   Probably not many of us could answer the child in an intelligent way, one not relying on religious myth. (But most of us know that the answer is available if we care to look it up, and that we could give the child a good answer.)

Anyhow, Diane’s feeling pity for atheists and her statement as to how people often reply to a curious child got me to thinking about explanations of natural phenomena, the distinction between good and bad explanations and eventually, the Darwinian explanation of life in our world.

Diane may not have realize it, but she gave us a perfect example of a pseudo explanation, one that looks like it does the work of explaining, but in fact does no work at all.  She made the popular assumption, still heard today,  that by invoking God’s creative activity one  can effectively explain how things are in the world. But saying that the sky-is-blue because this is how God created it is simply a religious way of conceding that one does not have any  useful, significant explanation to give. Does the child, on hearing such an “explanation,” have any real understanding of the blue sky?  No, for the very same answer would be given if the sky were orange, or purple or green.  The answer reduces the flat response: this is simply how things are. Diane’s answer also can be seen as refusal to do the hard work of coming up with a rational or factual response.

We can take Diane as representative of the large numbers of people who continue to believe that the only way to explain the origin and presence of life in this world is by invoking God’s creative action. Let’s imagine that the same child who wanted to know about the blue sky grows into the type of young person who curious about things, who poses other tough questions: How did life come about on this planet of ours?  How did earth come to have such an incredible variety of life forms?  Consider the “answer” that  Diane would give to these types of questions:  God created the world and all living creatures.

Well, as children and young people, we might have been satisfied with such an answer, after all, our parents and all respectable adults seemed to know that this was true.  However, if we did not let the adult orthodoxy dampen our natural curiosity about things, and if we persisted in trying to understand things, we might have experienced the uneasy suspicion that people like Diane were not really explaining anything at all. We also might have suspected that they were taking the easy road and avoiding the hard one, the one that requires the work of searching for a scientific explanation.

Charles Darwin, on the contrary, was one person who did not avoid the hard road. Like most of his contemporaries, he could have taken the easy path and accepted the pseudo explanation that life in the forms we know it today was the result of one act of divine creation. But he saw clearly that these were pseudo explanations:

“It is so easy to hide our ignorance under such expressions as the “plan of creation,” or “unity of design,” or such, and to think that we give an explanation when we only restate a fact.”

(from Darwin’s work, The Origin of Species)

Charles Darwin

Because of his great contribution to human knowledge, we have a good understanding of how the great variety of animal and plant life evolved on this planet.  His theory of evolution by natural selection also gives us a basis for developing plausible theories of how life may have evolved from non-life, theories which omit any ad hoc reference to the workings of a mysterious deity.

Charles Darwin personifies the scientific spirit. He demonstrates that commitment to the  spirit of science and rational inquiry will not let us rest easy with the primitive, pre-scientific and complacent belief that the various life forms are what they are because God so created them. He gives us the perfect response to Diane, with her misplaced pity for atheists, and to the religious, creationists, complacent in their false assumption that religious myth effectively explains things.


What is this process of ‘natural selection’ which some of us find so admirable?


Darwin’s own statement of the process of natural selection:

If, during the long course of ages and under varying conditions of life, organic beings vary at all in the several parts of their organization, and …if there be, owing to the high geometric powers of increase of each species, at some age, season, or year, a severe struggle for life, … then, considering the infinite complexity of the relations of all organic beings to each other and to their conditions of existence, causing an infinite diversity in structure, constitution, and habits, to be advantageous to them, I think it would be a most extraordinary fact if no variation ever had occurred useful to each being’s own welfare, in the same way as so many variations have occurred useful to man. But if variations useful to any organic being do occur, assuredly individuals thus characterized will have the best chance of being preserved in the struggle for life; and from the strong principle of inheritance they will tend to produce offspring similarly characterized. This principle of preservation, I have called, for the sake of brevity, Natural Selection. (Origin, p. 127 (facs. ed. of 1st ed.))


My attempt to summarize the process of natural selection:

  1. There’s a struggle for existence – Competition for scarce resources
  2. There’s variety among the organisms competing  -  Some variables give an advantage
  3. Those competitors with advantageous traits survive and reproduce
  4. Those variable traits which proved advantageous are passed to offspring
  5. Offspring compete for scarce resources.
  6. There’s variety among the competitors – some variables give advantage
  7. those competitors with advantageous variables win and reproduce
  8. Their offspring inherit favorable variables.
  9. There’s a continuing struggle for existence

Chance mutations result in variation.

Some of these variations (mutations) will prove advantageous.

Animals possessing these favorable variations will prevail in the struggle and will reproduce

Offspring of these animals will possess the favorable traits.

‘Selection’ results when favorable traits allow animal to prevail in the competition for survival.  Selection, success in the competition, is conditioned by specific animal traits (including favorable variations) and environmental conditions.

Selection means that only some of the random mutations are passed down.

Selection results in incremental changes over long periods of time.

Selection is cumulative in that only the favorable traits are saved and passed down.

Subsequent selection works on a base of accumulated favorable modifications.

Given an ‘X’ that replicates and has variations, natural selection can do its work of evolving better models and even different models.  Eventually, given a sufficient stretch of time, some of those evolved models will possess perceptual faculties, brains, and the capacity to invent culture, with its religions, technologies, sciences and philosophies.