Monthly Archives: March 2010

Puzzling about the LANGUAGE thing

It seems correct to say that language is a way of acting in the world or a form of intelligent behavior.

“….in the beginning was the WORD, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (from the Gospel of John ).

But can we accept this as an accurate statement of our linguistic genesis?

Countless eons of evolution of life — and later the evolution of the mammalian brain – came long before anything resembling a word.

As the members of the human species evolved to the next phase of their development, they became language-users. At some point in their development, humans found it useful (maybe necessary for survival) to communicate. Certain grunts, yelps, signals, etc. came to signify something: a warning, a request, a threat, etc.

By some remarkable accident this occurred: an individual made certain marks on a stone or a tree, marks which had some significance for others of the group — maybe the reminder of a transaction or the indicator of a remarkable event.


How do we state this ‘language’ business?

1. Humans are beings who happen to use language. Language, thus, happens to be the means by which humans communicate with one another, express themselves, and perform certain actions. It is a way of acting-in-the-world, but not the only way or inevitably the way humans had to go. They could have evolved using another tool or another way.


2. humans are language-using entities. The use of language is an essential part of being human, i.e., essential to human reality. Without language there wouldn’t be any human reality (as we understand the term “human reality”).


Language evolves within a context of language users;
i.e., beings who use language in a variety of ways. At first, the way they communicate among themselves, and express emotion; later with the development of human culture, language-using beings express ideas and develop complex theories, eventually invent mathematics and science.

According to some anthropological accounts, human language probably evolved from oral-visual signals (within a group) to verbal-spoken language, and eventually to written language. At any phase of this development, what we understand by the term “language” only makes sense within a context of language users.

Another way of stating this: Language is possible only because of the existence of a group {tribe (?)} of potential language users. A piece of language (e.g., an utterance, a phrase) has meaning only because a community of language users has given it meaning.

Borrowing from Wittgenstein, we could say that only within a “form of life” is language possible. In general, that “form of life” includes a community of language users, a group of beings (in our world, human beings) who use certain sounds, tokens, marks, signals, etc. to communicate with each other and to express certain feelings and experiences.


….la mentalidad y la cultura

Writing is a form of behavior, similar to talking but different in that writing registers a record that remains, at least for a short time. (Of course, modern electronic and computer technology allow our talk, messages, and records to be digitally recorded.)

What you see here is writing only because a cultural convention has been adopted by a group of persons who share the language. Without a cultural convention, this would be gibberish, mere scribbled marks signifying nothing. Something analogous may be said with regard to the sounds (noise) we make when we talk.

All of this sits on a cultural, genetic structure. Genetic evolution and cultural development have resulted in linguistic reality of language users.

….la mentalidad, the lengua y la mano

The wonder of language: someone makes a series of scribbles on a piece of paper, and somewhere down the line others make a big fuzz over it.

What one thinks can be recorded on some kind of medium accessible by others.

Today we can see what Plato and Aristotle recorded for us 2500 years ago, and read what the writers of the Old and New Testaments recorded for others to read and puzzle over.

Sometimes I am amazed by language, that we can issue certain mutterings and thereby communicate our thoughts, and that we can make certain scribblings (marks) on paper, and thereby express out thoughts. From a biological perspective these things appear close to miraculous. Maybe John of the Fourth Gospel was not entirely wrong.

‘Mutterings and scribblings’, thereby the world is transformed.
(To what degree were we capable of thought before we became language-using creatures?)

Some one or some group must have invented signals and noises that signified something. Such primitive conventions allowed people to learn (determine) what other persons intended or desired. This required identification with a social group, the recognition that one belonged to that group and that members of the group shared much in common, that in a rough way, each member of the group was doing the pretty much the same thing, had similar needs and means of satisfying those needs and that by cooperating and combining work each could better achieve our goals.
It is not likely that we could communicate effectively with a totally alien creature. We would need at least a few things in common, that like ourselves the creature has a consciousness or awareness of things, a perspective on the environment; and the less likely assumption: that we both share an interest in communication.
A word or words do not exist in isolation. The very concept of ‘word’ presupposes the existence of certain types of beings and a certain type of culture, call it a “linguistic culture.”

A word is a piece of language; neither the word nor language can have any reality outside of a culture of language-using beings.

Language exists only as the tool of a language-using culture (cf. L.Wittgenstein’s “form of life.”)

At some point in their evolution humans became language-using creatures, and then these creatures invented gods and other mythical beings. (“the animal creature was the creator”)

With language comes the expression of thought.
Those early ‘mutterings and scribblings’ had more fateful consequences than anyone could have ever imagined.

Other animals have gotten along quite well without language. Why did human beings evolve differently?

“In the beginning was the word . . . ” — John’s Gospel tells us, but surely this is not completely accurate.

Much had to happen and develop before words could appear, i.e., before language was invented. Yet John is not completely erroneous here. Words marked a crucial development, if not a beginning.

“Without words life would have no meaning,” the poet exclaims.
Without words we are mute and dumb!

Moral Progress & Moral Truth?

The claim that there has been moral progress in history, stated as a movement toward a transcendent moral truth, raises a number of critical questions: First, we can ask what is meant by “moral progress” and “moral truth.” Secondly, we might ask what philosophy (theory) of history is presupposed by such a grand theme as moral progress in history, and is that philosophy of history a rationally compelling one.

In his recent book, The Evolution of God (Little, Brown & Co., 2009), Robert Wright claims that history displays moral progress, a movement toward moral truth.

“Certainly there has been a kind of net moral progress in history, if only in the sense that moral imagination today routinely expands farther than the circumference of a hunger-gather village. And certainly religion has played a role in this progress.”

(page 427)

He then adds that it is certainly a fact that

“.. history has driven us closer and closer to moral truth, and now our moving still closer to moral truth is the only path to salvation — “salvation” in the original Abrahamic sense of the term: salvation of the social structure.”

(page 429) .
As these quotes from his latest book make clear, and as he argued in his earlier book, Nonzero – The Logic of Human Destiny, Wright claims to find moral progress in history.

For the purpose of this essay, let us set aside Wright’s general themes — a higher purpose in nature, an objective moral order in the universe, and an evolution of God in religious phenomena —-, all of which call for critical attention. Here I shall direct attention to his use of the ideas of ‘moral progress’ and ‘moral truth,’ both of which present a number of philosophical issues.

Wright claims to find a general direction in history of moral progress. The thesis of a general pattern of moral progress implies a progressive philosophy of history. There have been a variety of philosophies of history advanced; some examples are the 19th century theories by the German Idealist, G. Hegel, the founder of Marxism, Karl Marx, and the cyclical theories of Oswald Spengler, none of which give a clear picture of moral progress. Wright offers his theory of history. Does he make a compelling case for his philosophy of history, which is mostly an adaptation of the ancient doctrine of the Logos operating in history, developed by early Greek Stoics and the Jewish theologian, Philo? It is surely a questionable view of history. It is not clear how one could defend it philosophically; and Wright really does not offer an effective case in favor of his theory.

Has there been moral progress in history? While a number of people would agree with Wright that the general trend in history is one of moral progress, others have reasons for questioning that claim. The most that Wright has shown is that some aspects of historical change over the centuries can be seen as progressive changes in some respect. Increasing complexity and economic relations between societies can be seen as improvements over small tribes mostly antagonistic to each other. But progressive change is not necessarily moral progress. However, we can surely agree that there has been some moral progress in specific areas of historical, sociological development; e.g., progress in general attitudes regarding justice and human rights for people who used to be subject to enslavement; and progress in our notions of economic justice and human rights for women and ethnic, racial minorities. In other words, depending on which aspect of history we look at, we can argue meaningfully either for some kind of moral progress or argue for its absence, as long as there is agreement on the relevant value judgments, e.g., we agree that a situation in which people have a say in their government is an improvement in which they are subject to the arbitrary rule of the dictator; or we agree that conditions of religious freedom are better than conditions of religious totalitarianism. However, our recognition of ‘moral progress’ in this limited sense is not enough to not support Wright’s claim of general historical movement of moral progress.

As noted above, Wright assumes that talk of moral progress implies a progress toward moral truth: “..history has driven us closer and closer to moral truth.” This calls for at least two points of criticism:

1) There isn’t any reason for concluding that moral progress logically implies a movement toward moral truth. Talk about moral progress or moral improvement does presuppose a value judgment to the effect that the later stage is better than the earlier one; but this does not have to involve reference to ‘moral truth’; it can be stated in terms of the realization of certain values or satisfaction of a specific set of rules, with no commitment to any ‘moral truth.’

2) Wright is vague on what exactly is that ‘moral truth’ that historical moral progress approximates. The best I can get from his books is the statement of certain purported truths (“people everywhere are the same”; or the ‘truth’ that regional warfare has diminished and there is greater inclusion of people cooperating). While these propositions are relevant to morality in some way, they are not obviously moral truths. Wight’s ‘moral truths’ are more in the line of purported truths of historical patterns and sociological-anthropological truths, and they’re surely not ‘truths’ separate from the historical development that he purports to trace; they’re not separate truth toward which history is driving closer and closer. They are merely developments in history itself. .

So we have a definite problem is with Wright’s idea of moral truth, sitting out there somewhere waiting to be discovered. As anyone who has studied the subject of ethics beyond the introductory level, claims of moral truth are problematic.

For starters, the language of ethics seems to be prescriptive (e.g., statements of what one ought to do) and evaluative (e.g., value judgments concerning some action or choice). In neither case is propositional truth our primary concern, and probably does not even apply. When we turn attention to cases of moral conflict, such as issues of abortion, euthanasia, morality of war, distribution of benefits when there’s not enough for everyone, and other such issues, the claim that moral truth can be discerned is questionable to say the least. A genuine moral conflict means that we don’t have a ‘truth’ to which we can appeal; we lack any knowledge of moral truth which would settle the conflict. We simply have to make a choice based on our best judgment as to what is the right thing to do.

In his classical book, Ethics (Penguin books, 1954), P.H. Nowell-Smith tells us that “..moral philosophy is a practical science; its aim is to answer questions in the form ‘What shall I do?’. But no general answer can be given to this type of question.” (p. 320 ) He also rejects the notion that knowledge and truth can be applied to morality: He writes that sometimes philosophical theories rest on sheer logical confusions, and gives as a prime example the transferring concepts from mathematics and the sciences to moral discourse. This leads people to think that knowing how to lead one’s life is knowledge of theoretical truths, either about human nature or about a special realm of ‘values’. (See pages 317-318)

Many twentieth century analytical philosophers emphasized the difference between descriptive sciences and disciplines, where notions of truth and knowledge apply, and normative philosophies such as ethics, which deal with value judgments and prescriptions as to what one ought and ought not do. Here the notions of truth and knowledge have doubtful application.

However, as Alan R.White points out in his book Truth (Anchor Books, 1970), at least with respect to what he calls “moral pronouncements,” there is no obvious reason for denying that talk of moral truths is correct. Examples of moral pronouncements: Murder is wrong. Torture of babies is wrong. Giving help to the needy is good when one has the resources to do so. Genocide is evil, When these are stated in propositional form, there is no reason for denying that ‘truth’ can apply to them. White adds that “…moral pronouncements, unlike prescriptions, commands, or advice are expressed in the indicative mood, which is commonly a sigh that what is expressed can be true or false.” These are propositions about which we can agree or disagree with, but also argue about, or contradict; in some cases, he tells us they are also such that they “can be discovered, assumed or proved, believed, doubted or known; all of which characterize what can be true or false.” (pp. 60-61)

We can add that people are inclined to allow talk of truth with respect to universal principles, such as the Golden Rule, where there tends to be general agreement on the general truth that we should not do to others what we don’t want done to us. Utilitarians will argue that the principle of utility (Act so that greatest benefit for the greatest number results) is a moral truth. Kantians argue the same for the Categorical Imperative stated as “Always treat humans as ends-in-themselves, and never as a means only.” Few would argue that the unnecessary killing and torture of children is justifiable.

The issue of moral truth or ‘truth’ applied to moral discourse is a complicated one. It surely oversimplifies matters to assume without argument that there is such a thing as moral truth and that moral progress in history discloses this moral truth, as Robert Wright does. The sense in which ‘truth’ can apply to moral pronouncements and universal principles could be part of a general thesis that historically human societies are making progress in realizing such moral ideals, for example, the moral ideal embodied in the Golden Rule. But this is not how Wright has developed his thesis of moral progress in history.

Health Economics & Doctors Who Don’t Accept Cash

I was once calling around for my local area trying to find a doctor to go get a regular checkup. It had been quite a while so I was convinced it was time to get a checkup. Being an entrepreneur there are times when I did not have health insurance because I couldn’t afford it, but at this time I actually did have it. But I didn’t feel like waiting 30 days for a appointment so I figured I can just pay for this one appointment cash, no big deal right?

So I started calling around to several area doctors only to find one thing, they did not accept cash patients!

Now since I am a entrepreneur I found this very odd. With 98% of businesses in this county if you call or walk in and offer cash they will gladly accept in exchange for products or services. But not with many doctors offices. Now yes I know that there are some clinics and doctors who only accept cash and while I think this is great it is definitely the minority of doctors who operate this way.

So I had to figure out what was going on. I did some reading and learn about the 3rd party payer system in which the doctors simply bill the insurance companies, medicare, or medicaid for their services.

Well I wish I could always bill 3rd parties for the services my company provides. This would be great! Why is this great? Well because they are not in the room or on the phone to object to the price I am going to charge so naturally as a business person trying to bring in more money for my family and my employees I will charge as much as I can get away with. No wonder why health care costs in America are insanely out of control!

Now this is where most people that have not been entrepreneurs or worked in higher level business positions lose me. But let me explain with a simple economics lesson.

There are 2 Major “market forces” that bring down prices to a reasonable level relative to the quality of service provided:

1. Competition between me and the other guys that do the same thing I do

2. Negotiations Enabled by Consumer Choices (freedom)

Competition works like this; if I am starting a business as a doctor and there are 10 doctors in my city I will do 2 things to determine what I will charge for my services. First I will do the math and figure out between all my expenses (office rent, medical supplies, employees, insurance, etc) how much does it cost me to see a patient. Then I will call around and research what my competition is charging for the same service. Lastly I will set a price that is lower then the competition because I want to take some of their customers/patients. Obviously price is only one factor that people decide on, others are, quality, relationships, customer service, etc. This is why I can only hope to take some of the competitions business not all. Now the next year another doctor opens a practice and lowers the price a little bit more hoping to take some of my business away. This forces all the doctors in the area to either, charges less, provide more care, or provide better care.

Negotiations enabled by customers choices are a byproduct of competition. If I live in Santa Ana and there are 20 doctors that offer similar services of a similar quality then I can talk to the doctor I like and prefer and see if he will come down and match the prices of the other doctors. If it is a monopoly and there is only one clinic or doctor then its his way or the highway.

Some say that these market forces don’t work in health care because of fundamental differences. One fundamental difference I was explained is that people need health care unlike other products that are not required to live a healthy life. Well people need food and food prices are not skyrocketing like health care prices because we have a food industry that is keep in check by market forces such as competition. Its the lack of these market forces that have contributed to the rising health care costs.

Anyway there are many other factors and regulations that limit competition and raise prices such as:

1. Limiting choices of insurance companies (instate)

2. Allowing health care equipment/supply companies to get slammed with excessive lawsuits and taking 100% of the liability

3. Giving the AMA a monopoly over many aspects of the industry such as licensing of medical schools

But that’s a whole other book!!

Check out these links for further reading:

Four Step Health Care Solution

The Best and Worst Health Care Reform Ideas

Pushing and Pulling at the concept of Knowledge

Epistemology is that discipline in philosophy that deals with the concept of knowledge, the various problems relating to the concept such as: our attempts to define knowledge, and to identify the sources and limits of knowledge, to state the distinction between knowledge and opinion, and analyze the concept of truth.

Traditionally the philosophical question of knowledge primarily concerns propositional knowledge, i.e., knowing that such and such is so (that a proposition is true, e.g., knowing that Santa Ana is in Orange County, California), as contrasted with possessing a skill, talent or ability, as in knowing how to fix a Volkswagon engine or knowing how to play the piano. But some modern philosophers pay more attention the latter types of knowledge.

Knowledge involves the concept of truth insofar as the proposition (belief) known must be true. There is no such thing as knowledge of a false proposition. In addition, claiming that some proposition is true generally requires that I be able to show how I gained knowledge of this true proposition. Someone can justifiably challenge me to show how I gained knowledge of this truth.

(Of course, much of what we “know” to be true is knowledge we have acquired from others: scientists, investigators, historians, scholars, etc. – We could call this “culturally based knowledge”; but in some cases, we should have some idea how our claims to knowledge can be justified, although only the expert or the specialist would actually be able to carry out the tests or procedures that justify the claim to knowledge.)

Sometimes we speak of knowing someone or something instead of knowing that someone is such and such, as when I tell you that I know Sam, or that I knew Susan before she became Suzanne. Some people are inclined to call this knowledge by acquaintance. “I know that man” and “I know what desperate love is, having experienced it” are other examples. This ‘knowledge’ may seem different from propositional knowledge, but probably is not. Certainly, “knowing the man” and “knowing desperate love” can be restated propositionally if we possess the required writing skill.

Sometimes we see cases of “knowing how” as knowledge by acquaintance: I know the way to Kansas City. But ‘knowing the way to K.C.” is more clearly understood as knowing how to get to K.C.

But some people argue that ‘knowledge by acquaintance’ differs from propositional knowledge. “I know that song” means I am very familiar with it, know the melody and lyrics, can sing it if I choose. It doesn’t mean that I know some true proposition about it. Another example of knowledge by acquaintance: I know how it feels to lose a loved one to cancer. I have gone through the experience, and thus know what it is like. Could we call this ‘experiential knowledge’?
(Notice that even this kind of knowledge requires application of the correct concepts and some propositional description.)

It seems true that when we know that such and such, or when we know some individual, we have gotten something right, we have hit the target, so to speak. But the analogy is limited; for sometimes we can hit the target accidentally; but possessing knowledge is more akin to hitting the target because of our skill as marksmen. If we can make good our claim to knowing something, we’re expected to do more than simply claim we made a good guess, and by chance hit upon the truth. Yet one can gain genuine knowledge by a fortunate accident: e.g., the boy who fell into a cave and found the ancient scrolls. By accident he has come to know where the scrolls are hidden. Contrast this with the adult who guesses correctly, yet has not been able to verify the fact that the scrolls are hidden in that cave. By inductive inference and good luck, he has made a good conjecture, but cannot be said to know; whereas the boy knows.
(Someone might want to challenge this.)

“He speaks the truth” does not logically imply “He knows the truth.” For he might have hit upon the truth accidentally, i.e., what he says is true, but he cannot rationally justify his belief that it is true. (In our previous example, the boy could justify his claim, whereas the adult with the lucky guess could not.) (Another example: I believed that Simpson was guilty; it turned out he was in fact guilty; but I could not have proven that he was guilty; I could not have come up with compelling evidence for his guilt.)

The case differs for knowing how to do such and such. The fact that Bill rides a bicycle logically implies that he knows how to ride a bicycle. “Knowledge how” is demonstrated by the relevant behavior, knowing the way to Kansas City by actually taking you there, for example. Are there counter-examples to this?

Reflection and self-awareness: When I know that X, must I also know that I know? Is it possible to know something but not be aware that you know?
(I might have forgotten that I knew the solution to the puzzle.) Doesn’t the statement
“I know X” imply my awareness that I know X? (Ordinarily yes, but there can be exceptions.) (Does this apply only to propositional knowledge?)

Sometimes in retrospect we might say, “I knew all along that he was the perpetrator” meaning that I believed correctly that he was the guilty one although I couldn’t prove it to others. Here the “I knew” seems to just be a way of saying that I had a true belief (or made a lucky guess) at the time. It would be incorrect to interpret this to mean, ‘I knew such and such, but did not know that I knew it at the time.’

More likely, “I knew it along” is just a way of talking. I had it right all along, but couldn’t prove it. (Sometimes it might mean “I had a hunch.”)

Holding a true belief, by itself, is not sufficient for claiming knowledge in the case. For sometimes we hold true beliefs by accident or simply because we got this true belief from someone else, and never had any idea as to how the belief would be verified: the atomic weight of hydrogen, for example..

Yet most of the knowledge (viz. scientific knowledge) that most of us hold has been gotten from someone else. We certainly did not carry out the tests and verification to rationally justify the propositions at issue. For example, we claim to know the distance between the earth and the sun; but this ‘knowledge’ is something that we received from others. It is a justified, true belief, but the rational justification has been done by others. By a study of the relevant science, we can arrive at some idea as to the means of rational justification.

The American pragmatist, Richard Rorty, likely would argue that the concept of knowledge is a cultural concept. ‘Knowledge’ is culturally and historically determined. What we accept as knowledge is determined by our culture and historical period. (This opposes the positivistic, “scientific” viewpoint that scientific knowledge has universal application.) Specific beliefs that we accept as common knowledge may be culturally conditioned, and may differ from the way those beliefs are evaluated by another culture.

Can we say the same thing about the general concept of ‘knowledge’ itself? What about specific empirical or scientific propositions, such as that ‘at sea level water freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit’?

A good attempt to define knowledge is to see it as realized when
a. one holds a true believe, and
b. is rationally justified in holding that belief.

In short, this purports to define knowledge as justified, true belief. But, as Edmund L. Gettier argued successfully, there are counter-examples which appear to refute this as an entirely adequate definition of ‘knowledge.’

How do we acquire knowledge?

Here is a start at an answer: we gain knowledge through experience; we acquire some of our knowledge ourselves; but much of what we “know” we get from others; for example, we become familiar with the work of scientists and with the accepted “findings” of the various sciences.

Education is a key to acquiring knowledge. The experience of living itself will also provide a person with much knowledge. We learn from experience by careful observation and correct inference from our observations.

Another stab at an answer: experience of the world (of living and doing things), rational inquiry and scientific investigation (use of the scientific method) are means by which we acquire knowledge;

(Maybe we should say: these are the means by which we justify our claims to knowledge. Acquisition and justification have to be distinguished.)

One problem is that many people mean by “knowledge” a conviction that they will not easily let go. We call this “subjective certainty.” For example, I may say that I “know” such and such in the sense that this is my belief and I cannot be easily dislodged. The “subject” here could be an individual, a group or organization, or even an entire culture. (We often find this type of thing in politics and religion. E.G., “I know that Christ is my savior.”)

However, epistemology is not a branch of psychology; and ‘knowing that such and such’ should not be defined as a mental state; for being in a particular mental state is not a sufficient condition for having knowledge. (It may also not be a necessary condition.) Hence, strong conviction or strong subjective certainty will not show that the subject has knowledge. (Knowledge requires the satisfaction of an objective condition.) To determine the presence or absence of knowledge, we must look to the world. There must be publicly verifiable evidence or valid inference, one that is rationally compelling.

Likewise, epistemology is not a branch of sociology or anthropology. As students of philosophy, our primary goal is not to describe what society or a particular culture regards as knowledge. (However, such knowledge may play an important role in our philosophical thesis. In addition, culture plays an important role: the concepts and language used to analyze knowledge are culturally based.)

(As students of epistemological philosophy, we focus on the conceptual problems related to knowledge and belief.)

There’s a sense in which a knowledge claim is similar to a claim of some ability. (Gilbert Ryle used this approach. ‘Knowledge that’ is explained in terms of ‘knowing how.’) If I claim to be able to run a marathon, but when the marathon run occurs I am barely able to finish one tenth of the marathon distance and cannot continue, most people would question, even deny, my claim to be able to run the marathon. Similarly, if I claim to know the way to Kansas City, and when I try to take you there I get us hopelessly lost, most people would deny that I really know how to get to Kansas City. Public evidence has shown that I really don’t possess the “know-how” that I claimed. Likewise, if I claim to know that the world will end in two weeks and the two-week period passes and nothing happens, most people would deny that I possessed this claimed ability to foretell a future event. I did not possess knowledge of the end of the world.

We could say, then, that possessing knowledge is a public matter and not a private thing. Certainly it is not merely a matter of being in a particular state of mind or having a specific, subjective experience. To prove my claim to knowledge I have to show something; e.g., show that my knowledge claim really is based on fact, or at least show good evidence or reasons in support of my knowledge claim. “I have to bring others into the game.”
(This is why we tend to dismiss claims to absolutely private knowledge as having any significance other than giving insight into the psyche of the person claiming the “special knowledge.”)

Often we are limited to knowledge by elimination of false candidates to knowledge. We may not have positive knowledge of AAA, but we know that BBB, CCC, DDD, etc. cannot be AAA, and we know that other candidates: EEE, FFF, GGG, and such are most probably not AAA. By such process of elimination we may come closer to knowing what AAA might be.

This applies to much of the method of the natural sciences. By eliminating false hypotheses and theories, we move closer to the neighborhood of scientific knowledge.

In the history of philosophy, the distinction between knowledge and mere opinion (belief) has occupied many philosophers, e.g. Plato, who required a special metaphysics to explain his distinction between knowledge and opinion.

Other famous figures in philosophy have defined ‘knowledge’ with logical certainty, of the sort found in mathematical proofs, e.g. Rene Descartes. [This is most likely another wrong turn in effort to define ‘knowledge,’ but instructive nevertheless.]

As the story is told, Descartes became weary of all the opinions and groundless ‘doctrine’ that masqueraded as knowledge; he proposed to identify genuine knowledge by doubting everything that could possibly be doubted; if at the end of this process of ‘hyperbolic doubt’ anything remained that could not be doubted, then he would be able to say that he had found genuine knowledge, that which was absolutely certain in the sense that it could not be doubted. He came down to the irreducible fact that he was doubting. Since even by doubting that he doubted he affirmed that he doubted, which in turn affirmed that he existed as a doubter, he affirmed that he existed as a thinking being, Thus, he came to his famous Cogito, Ergo Sum. That the subject exists as a thinking being is then supposed to be the foundation for genuine knowledge, affirmations that follow from the ‘cogito’ proposition; these supposedly have the same unassailable certainty as the Cogito.

Spinoza tried to establish genuine knowledge on a model of geometry. He proposed to start with a few axioms and theorems and, by logical deduction, build a system of metaphysics and ethics that would qualify as mathematically certain knowledge.

(See what Ruben Hersh, in his book What is Mathematics, Really? has to say about the assumption that this procedure correctly characterizes mathematics.)

A good part of the history of western philosophy has dealt with the subject of epistemology. We find this in the efforts of western philosophers to explain and understand the concept of ‘knowledge’, and the related concepts ‘belief’, ‘truth’, ‘perception’, ‘memory’ and such.

Some philosophers approach the problem of ‘knowledge’ by way of skepticism. They explore the concept of ‘knowledge’ as they attempt to respond to the skeptic’s challenge. The general skeptic claims that we cannot justifiably claim to know anything. Limited skeptics contend that we cannot justify many of our ordinary claims to knowledge. In responding to the skeptic, we have to deal with the question: What really counts as knowing something? Or what are the criteria for justifiable knowledge claims?

I have many beliefs and opinions as to how the world works and the role that humans play. Some of these are true; some likely false. Some would be classified as knowledge, some as mere “hunches” or “guesses” as to what is playing. Some of these beliefs represent my convictions and emotional commitment; some are mere opinions that I’m inclined to “try out” without any strong commitment. Most are beliefs and opinions borrowed from others.

D.W. Hamlyn reminds us that

“..many kinds of knowledge … presuppose that the person who knows has certain relevant kinds of understanding, certain ideas or concepts, which form the basis of knowledge and in terms of which the knowledge is to be formulated. Knowledge that something or other is the case can normally be formulated in propositions.”


“..knowledge presupposes..that the person who knows has the relevant concepts or ideas, concepts that might conceivably be formulated in verbal terms so that the knowledge could be expressed in a proposition or propositions. . . one who knows that P is F must have at his disposal all the materials for knowledge that p, in that he must have the relevant concepts. To have a concept of F is to know what it is for something to be F. Thus, knowledge of facts presupposes other forms of knowledge, those involved in having concepts; and whether or not a person has these prior forms of knowledge may itself emerge in what things of a factual kind he can be said to know, perhaps, to which propositions he will assent.

(From Hamlyn’s The Theory of Knowledge)

If I claim to know that our government is a republican form of democracy, I must believe this, and if I believe it, I must have some understanding of the relevant concepts, e.g. ‘government’ and ‘republican democracy.’ We have to presuppose a minimal understanding of the meaning and a basic ability to correctly apply the relevant concepts.

We also need some understanding of what it means to say that certain concepts apply and to say that the relevant propositions are true. For example, that the concept of ‘republican democracy’ applies to the U.S. government; and that the proposition ‘the U.S. government is a republican form of government’ is true.

It is fair to say that any claim to knowledge presupposes a complex network of concepts and ideas, social conventions and agreements, etc. Can we then say that knowledge is a social, linguistic phenomenon?

Must we allow for this possibility: I have knowledge that only I know and which cannot be communicated to anyone else? Is there such a thing as absolutely private knowledge which is not expressible by any public language, thus not expressible in propositions that can be understood and evaluated by other persons? Mystics sometimes claim to have such knowledge. But we don’t have to cite mysticism; a simple secret that I don’t share with anyone would seem to answer the first questions above.

But philosophers like L. Wittgenstein and Gilbert Ryle give us reasons for doubting, if not outright denying, that private knowledge is possible.
(This will be left for a sequel to these remarks and observations.)

Robert Wright’s “Evolution of God”: An Exercise in Ambiguity

Although Robert Wright’s work in his latest book, The Evolution of God, offers much to stimulate and challenge students of history, ethics, and religious philosophy, there is much here that is extremely confusing, even bewildering. Case in point is his tendency to equivocate and flip-flop intellectually on such key questions as those concerning the type of historical account that his book develops and that concerning the nature of the “God,” whose evolution he claims to describe.

In the Introduction to his book, Robert Wright writes that the account of religion’s origins, history, and future developed in his book is a materialistic account. Then he adds that he will show that there is an objective moral order, which Philo called the “Logos,” which is real and indicates a divine force working in history. “… the story of this evolution itself points to the existence of something you can meaningfully call divinity;..” (The Evolution of God, page 4)

These propositions, if not mutually inconsistent, at least present a great intellectual conflict; but Wright seems oblivious to this. He uses the concepts of “materialism” and the Logos doctrine as if they could be combined harmoniously. But they cannot. Typically scholars interpret the “Logos” in Philo’s philosophy, in a variety of ways: the utterance of God, the Divine Mind, God’s Transcendent Power, the first-born Son of God (John’s Gospel), the Universal Bond in the physical world and the human soul, immanent Reason, and the Immanent Mediator of the Physical Universe. These are spiritual and metaphysical notions which are not at all compatible with a materialistic philosophy, which typically reduces all reality to matter, physical(including such phenomena as energy, electricity, magnetism, X-rays, and such), chemical, biological, and such. Materialism typically is contrasted with dualistic philosophies, which emphasize the reality of spiritual and mental realms in addition to the material-physical reality.

If Wright uses concepts like the “Logos,” an objective moral order, and a divinity-of-sorts working in history and nature, he should expect that the reader will seriously doubt whether he is really presenting a materialistic view of history. Obviously, the former concepts (Logos, divinity) are very much incongruous with a materialistic account of history and nature.

Is Robert Wright really a materialist, as he claims, or is he a follower of the Logos, as much of the account in his book indicates? In raising this question, I pick out only one of the various aspects of what seems to be “Wright’s specialty”: A marked tendency to equivocate, intellectually flip-flop, and perform sleights-of-hand worthy of the best magicians.

Consider another indicator of this: the theme of his book, namely the ‘God,’ whose putative ‘growth’ and ‘evolution’ he purports to describe in his book. Wright cannot seem to make up his mind whether this is a real ‘God’ that is affirmed by people of religious faith or whether it is just the concept or idea that people have of this “god,” something all (believers and non-believers alike) can accept as fact.

On page 213, Wright titles a section of chapter 8 with the question, “But is it God?” in which he qualifies significantly his talk about “God.” He states,

“The god I‘ve been describing is a god in quotation marks, a god that exists in people’s heads. When I said in chapter 5, for example, that Yahweh was strong yet compassionate, I just meant that his adherents thought of him as strong yet compassionate. There was no reason to believe that there was a god “out there” that matched this internal conception. Similarly when I say God shows moral progress, what I’m really saying is that people’s conception of God moves in a morally progressive direction.


He even says, in reference to the god believed in by Christians, Jews, and Muslims:

“…The god you thought was born perfect was in fact born imperfect. The good news is that this imperfect god isn’t really a god anyway, just a figment of the human imagination.”


It should be emphasized that at this point in his book Wright admits that all this talk about “god” is just talk about people’s conception of god, without committing himself to a God that really exists “out there” to match the conception that people have of him. Even the oft-repeated statements of the “moral growth” of god are really only references to a perceived moral growth in peoples’ ideas of god.

However, when we arrive at the following chapter, “Logos: The Divine Algorithm,” Mr. Wright is singing a different tune. Here he agrees with Philo that by “god” we mean a transcendent, yet immanent, real God, not just a concept that people have of god.

“….the Logos reconciles the transcendence of God with a divine presence in the world. God himself is beyond the material universe, somewhat the way a video game designer is outside of the video game. . . God may be outside the physical universe, but, as Goodenough puts it, there is “an immanent presence and cooperation of divinity in the created world.” Wright then adds that “the job of human beings … is to in turn cooperate with the divinity, a task they’ll do best if they sense this presence and the purpose it imparts.”


Wright does not qualify these statements as an account of what others (e.g. Philo) believed, but gives them as his own (Wright’s own) assertions. We can only read this as saying that Wright himself believes that there is a real, immanent God, a divinity who imparts a purpose on the universe. A real, immanent God who imparts a higher purpose to the created world is more than just the concept of God in people’s heads or just a figment of human imagination. Moreover, what Wright wrote at page 221 becomes an incredible piece of nonsense if he still held to his earlier statement that ‘god’ is just a figment of the human imagination. It is much like the nonsense I would engage in if I told you that, Henry the friendly dragon, is just a figment of my imagination, but he does a lot of the clean-up work in my backyard. Doesn’t Wright owe it to his readers at least to give the appearance of some logical consistency?

Obviously, this is another instance of Wright’s equivocation and flip-flopping. We get more in a single paragraph near the end of the book:

“…when I talked about the “growth” of the Abrahamic god, it wasn’t because I feel confident that this god, or any god, exists (a questioned I’m unqualified to answer). It was because the god of Abrahamic scriptures — real or not — does have a tendency to grow morally. This growth, though at times cryptic and superficially haphazard, is the “revelation” of the moral order underlying history; as the scope of social organization grows, God tends to eventually catch up, drawing a larger expanse of humanity under his protection, or at least a larger expanse of humanity under his toleration.”


Notice carefully what Wright is saying here. The Abrahamic god may not exist; he might not be real. We don’t know and are not qualified to say. But this putative god (“god”) who may just be a figment of human imagination has a tendency to grow morally (which means nothing more than we can interpret selected parts of history so that the moral values held by cultures are seen as changing in a progressive way). Furthermore, this putative god (who is really nothing but the concepts —– and they are numerous — which people have of god) reveals a moral order (presumably an objective order) underlying history. Moreover, this putative god (not really a God, you understand) brings a larger expanse of humanity under his protection and his toleration. He may not exist and may not even be real, but he does all these things.

I submit that you DON’T have to be very competent in critical thought and logic to see this as a piece of bewildering gibberish. After reading over 400 pages of the Wright treatment, we cannot even be sure whether he believes or does not believe in God, or whether he is a materialist or a follower of Philo’s Logos doctrine; because states these opposing views repeatedly. He really seems to be in some state of conflict himself. As a “materialist” he really cannot come out and declare clearly that there is a God who is the ground for an objective moral order, as the monotheistic religions claim. Nevertheless, Wright wants to promote his over-stated theory of nonzero-sumness working in history; and he has been impressed by Philo’s doctrine of the Logos. Going from these notions, he then makes the rather the vague inference that these are indicative of a-kind-of-divinity at work in the universe, although he is too embarrassed to state this honestly and forthrightly. Apparently, then, he cannot seem to avoid the types of equivocation and ambiguity which would result in a low ‘C’ grade for an essay submitted in Freshman Philosophy.

Questions and Remarks about the ‘God’ Issue

Were Moses and Mohammad referring to the same deity?

Was Jesus of the synoptic gospels referring to the same deity as Jesus of the Gospel by John? Were either one referring to the same God as Paul’s God?

What can we say about the deity of the Trinitarian Christianity? Do we have the same deity as that of Abraham?

Assuming that these questions present real issues, how could we ever resolve the issues?
Are there any criteria of identity? Aren’t we limited to the properties and relationships that theists assign to their specific deity? (i.e., Do we ever have any more than the putative properties and relationships which theists ascribe to their specific concepts of deity?)

[In actuality each group refers only to its own projection (of deity), to that which they imagine as having objective (transcendental) reality.]

God-talk: The assumption is that the name/description refers to a separate, independent entity.
[Surely this is a very questionable assumption.]

A second assumption is that different sets of name/description can refer to the same (one) entity.
[Here we have another very questionable proposition.]

In what sense do we have any grounds for claiming the term “God” refers to an objective entity? Show me how we canunderstand the assertion that two individuals refer to the same entity when they use the term “God”. Show me how we could ever evaluate such an assertion.

All understand the same thing by the use of the term “God”? Within a specific circle all may understand more or less the same thing. But nothing follows regarding the objective status of the referent. It is nothing more than a cultural concept that members of the culture apply in much-the-same-way. (The ‘culture’ may be a circle of theologians and philosophers.)

Outside our specific circle people understand very different things by the term “god.” When we take this into consideration the likelihood of reference to an objective entity is even less. Here the signs are undeniable that we’re dealing with a variety of cultural concepts.

The theist claims: “When I say “God” I refer to a real, objective entity. I’m not simply referring to a fiction of my imagination.” But without the appropriate faith, we only have his words that this is so.

Compare to this: When I say “Vu” I refer to a real, live person. I can take her by the hand and introduce her to you. You can see her, take her hand, and converse with her. You do not have to rely on my claim that Vu really exists.

Compare this to Don Quijote: “When I say “Dulcinea” I mean the purest, most virtuous, most beautiful woman in Spain.” But when Sancho Panza points to the object of Quijote’s affection, we know that Quijote suffers from delusions. Aldonza is no Dulcinea! “Dulcinea” existed only in his fevered imagination.

Try the same with the “G” term. When I say “G” I refer to a real, objective entity. But I cannot bring this entity before you and have you shake hands. I cannot fix it so that you can reach out and touch this entity. Even if I could arrange things so that you have a special experience of something (some entity?), there’s no way of verifying contact with the same entity. For the neutral observer who asks for evidence there’s nothing beyond the believer’s claim (faith, belief, arguments?) that ‘G’ exists. In other words, there’s no unambiguous way of establishing an objective referent for the term “G”.

We’re both reaching out in the thick fog and imagining that we touch the same object.

[With ‘G’ you have a special experience, a dream or vision and a concept, but no grounds for claiming an objective referent. Yet Sister Michelle prays to Him and claims that her prayers are answered, and that if you pray to Him you too will benefit.]

We could say that talk about “G” is just talk about a cultural concept. A prophet or holy person had a dream or a vision, and wrote certain things down. A group of people use the term “G” in such and such a way.

[We can work an analogy with numbers. Numbers do not exist as objective entities, although in mathematics we use them as if they were objective. Numbers are cultural concepts of a special kind. They cut across cultures and function much like objective entities. But unless one is a Platonist, one does not postulate numbers as objective entities existing in some mysterious realm.]

Those who do not play the theological game cannot make much sense of the assertion that ‘G’ does have an objective referent, that ‘G’ exists but in a spiritual realm outside the range of scientific investigation. “He does exist independently of our visions, dreams, doctrines and concepts, but in a land-far-far-away,” the believer seems to say.

Ambiguity Of The Term “GOD”

Part I: Varieties in Conceptualizations of God:

A look at the relevant literature reveals that theologians and philosophers hold a variety of concepts of deity. A number of writers on the subject have pointed out that, even when we limit ourselves to Western-style monotheism, the meaning “God” is equivocal and ambiguous.

Here I offer examples of variety in god concepts.

John Hick, a well-known and respected philosopher of religion, states (in his book, Philosophy of Religion) that the Judaic-Christian concept of God is “conceived as an infinite, eternal, uncreated, personal reality who has created all that exists other than himself, and who has revealed himself to his human creatures as holy and loving.” (page 14)

Compare that to what my ‘Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Collier-Macmillan, 1967, ed. Paul Edwards)’ states as the concept of God:
It lists the attributes of God as a being who possesses: infinity, unity, simplicity, incorporeality immutability, eternity, perfect goodness, omniscience, and omnipotence.

In other words, God is an eternal, unlimited, spiritual being who is omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good. A variety of opinion remains as to whether God is transcendent or immanent, as to the nature of his relationship to the world, and his status as a personal being.

One could argue that despite a variety of views regarding God’s relationship to the world, Hick and the writer of the encyclopedia article agree on the core attributes of deity.

But when we look at other writers and theologians, it is variety and differences that jump out at us. Consider the overview of Hartshorne and Reese in their book, Philosophers Speak of God, in which they offer the following classification of theistic doctrines: The Supreme Being can be conceived as

• Eternal-Temporal Consciousness, Knowing and including the world (Panentheism, Plato Sri Jiva, Whitehead, Radhadrishnan.)
• Eternal Consciousness, not knowing or including the world: Aristotelian theism.
• Eternal Consciousness, knowing but not including the world: Classical, Philo, Augustine, Anselm, al-Ghazzali, Aquinas, Leibniz.
• Eternal beyond consciousness and knowledge: Emanationism, Plotinus.
• Eternal Consciousness, Knowing and Including the world: Classical Pantheism, Sankara, Spinoza, Royce
• Eternal-Temporal Consciousness, knowing but not including the world: Temporalistic theism, Socinus, Lequier.
• Eternal-Temporal Consciousness, partly exclusive of the world: Limited panentheism, James, Ehrenfels. Brightman.
• Temporal and nonconscious: Wieman

One could say that eternity, at least, marks the deity, except that the last concept makes God a temporal being.

Next consider the categories given by Donald A. Wells, in his book: God, Man, and the Thinker (Philosophies of Religion): Limiting himself to monotheism, Wells lists the following general categories of god-concepts:

• Pantheism: Everything is God
• Deistic supernaturalism: The far-off God (a remote, absolutely unknowable deity whose sole contact with the universe was to create it)
• Naturalism: The Process God (“God” as the tendency toward greater order in the universe)
• Neo-Orthodoxy: The Ground of Being (found in the theology of Bonaventura and Tillich)
• Orthodox Personalism: An all-knowing, perfectly good personal Being who is all-powerful (deity portrayed as a person-like being (Father, Lord, King) with unlimited power)
• Limited Personalism: An all-knowing, perfectly good personal Being whose powers are limited

(Which one shall we select as the correct concept?)

Following his look at theological doctrines that characterize God as the ground-of-being or being-in-itself, Walter Kaufmann, in his impressive book, Critique of Religion and Philosophy, summarizes the reasons for holding that the term “God” is bound to be ambiguous.

“God” is not a univocal term. The deeds and words of God, the visions phrases, and relations into which God enters; and the thoughts and feeling about Him which are recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures add up to a conception overcharged with meaning. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is not simply “being-in-itself.” And now there have been added to this overrich conception of the Hebrew Scriptures the sayings of Jesus and stories of the Gospels, the theologies of the fourth evangelist and Paul, the ideas of the other authors of New Testament Epistles, the visions of the Revelation of St. John the Divine, and the vast lore, if not of the Talmud, Midrash, and the Jewish mystics, of the church fathers and Christian mystics, the scholastics, and innumerable theologians and philosophers.
Seeing that “God” is so far from being a univocal term and that the terms applied to him by theologians are admittedly not intended to mean what they generally mean, it is no exaggeration if we conclude that most statements about God are essentially ambiguous. They cannot be called true or false. Interpretations of them which are true are usually ingenious or trivial or heretical —- often all three. The propositions themselves defy translation.”

(Critique of Religion and Philosophy, Doubleday, 1961 pp. 180-181)

Can we say that at the very least we have some reason for doubting the view that all philosophers, theologians, and reputable religious writers agree on the basic meaning of the concept of “God”? But maybe the three major monotheistic religions can at least agree on the core attributes of God. This is the issue of Part II.

Part II Monotheism and claims of the “same God”

Proposition A: The God of Christians, Jews, and Muslims is the same God.

Propositions A is likely false, and certainly cannot be verified., although most people assume that it is true and (from all appearances) do not spend any time worrying about how anyone could show that it is true.

But could one ever demonstrate that the three major monotheistic religions all point to the same supernatural entity (Proposition A), referred to by the term “God”? What would be the criteria by which all observers, including neutral parties, would agree that, indeed, the same entity was referenced by the term “God”? We cannot say that they all attribute the same properties to this one God. Someone might assert that, although each religious tradition knows him by way of different properties, they still refer to the same being. But how would one ever show that proposition to be true or even rationally well-grounded?

Corollary A1: Christians, Jews, and Muslims believe in a God to whom they assign the same set of core properties.

The corollary proposition is that all adherents of these monotheistic faiths identify their deity by the same essential (“core”) properties. This is an empirical claim which can easily be tested by empirical means, namely, checking various representatives to see whether they all conceive of their deity in the same way. The evidence, easily available, indicates the A1 also is false. A friend with special interest in Judaism, has shown me numerous sources and reasons for concluding that from a Judaic perspective A1 is false: the ‘G-D’ of Judaism does not share core properties with the deity of Christians. It would be an easy task to show similar reasons for denying that Allah, the God of Muslims, shares core properties with either the God of Jews or that of Christians.

In Part I above, I offered various sources and examples of people, mostly a variety of Christians, who held notions of deity that refute A1. Below, I offer one more. This is a selection from an essay, “Eschatological Verification,” (Theology Today, April 1960) by John Hick, a respected Christian philosopher/theologian. He writes:

“There are many different concepts of God, and it may be that statements employing some of them are open to verification or falsification while statements employing others .. are not.”

In addition, he states:

“The strength of the notion of eschatological verification is that it is not an ad hoc invention but is based upon an actually operative religious concept of God. In the language of Christian faith, the word “God” stands at the center of a system of terms, such as Spirit, grace, Logos, incarnation, Kingdom of God, and many more; and the distinctly Christian conception of God can only be grasped in its connection with these related terms. . .”

(my emphasis)

So, according to Hick, this concept of God is surely not one which could be affirmed by either Jews or Muslims. He lists what he, as a Christian thinker, regards as core properties of this ‘God’: including the distinctly Christian notions of grace, Logos, incarnation and such.

I find that that each of these religious cultures has its distinctive concept of deity, and that within each one there is more variety in the ways that people actually conceive of their deity. Furthermore, I do not see how any theology or theistic philosophy can make good the claim that, despite the variety of descriptions, all people of monotheistic faith point to the same God.

Robert Wright’s Failed Tactic: His Promotion of Teleology in Natural Selection.

One of the many confusing points advanced by Robert Wright in his recent book, The Evolution of God, is the claim that the ideas of a purpose and an end (for which organism are “designed”) are found in the Darwinian philosophy of evolution by natural selection. In other words, Wright, while trying not to be too obvious about it, argues for a form of teleology in biological evolution. He even attempts to recruit Daniel Dennett, a well-known exponent of Darwinian natural selection. We can admire Wright for his tireless effort, but ultimately there are good reasons for rejecting his attempt to show that teleology is part of Darwinian natural selection. Wright’s surprising move is a tactic that fails; as I will show, his attempt to “recruit” Dennett on his behalf is without merit. When we look closely at what the Darwinian philosopher, Daniel Dennett, says concerning natural selection we find a categorical rejection of the idea that purpose plays any role in Darwinian natural selection.

First, let’s look at how Wright brings out his case:

On page 402 (The Evolution of God), Wright gives us the following:

Indeed, so special is natural selection that lots of biologists are willing to talk about it designing organisms. (Or, actually, “designing” organisms; they tend put the word in quotes, lest you think they mean a conscious, foresightful designer.) Even the famously atheist Darwin philosopher Daniel Dennett uses that kind of terminology; he says this process of “design” imbues organisms with “goals” and “purposes.” For example: organism are “designed” to pursue goals subordinate to that ultimate goal, such as finding mates, ingesting nutrients, and pumping blood.

The take-home lesson is simple. It is indeed legitimate to do what Paley did: inspect a physical system for evidence that it was imbued with goals, with purpose, by some higher-order creative process. If the evidence strongly suggests such a thing, that doesn’t mean the imbuer was a designer in the sense of a conscious being; in the case Paley focuses on, it turned out not to be. Still, the point is that you can look at a system and argue empirically about whether it has, in some sense, a “higher” purpose. There are hallmarks of purpose, and some physical systems have them.

“Well, the entire process of life on Earth, the entire evolving ecosystem — from the birth of bacteria through the advent of human beings through the advent of cultural evolution, through the human history driven by that evolution — is a physical system. So in principle we could ask the same question about it that we asked about organisms; it could turn out that there is strong evidence of imbued purpose, as Paley and Dennett agree there is in organisms. In other words, maybe natural selection is an algorithm that is in some sense designed to get life to a point where it can do something — fulfill its goal, its purpose.

(p. 402, The Evolution of God, Little, Brown, and Co., 2009)

As has been the case throughout much of his book, Wright tends to equivocate. On the one hand, he tells us that the process of design imbues organisms with “goals” and “purposes”; but adds that biologists don’t really mean a “conscious, foresightful” work of a designer. He discounts Paley’s argument for a conscious designer (i.e., a creator God); but affirms the notion of design in nature in the sense of a “higher purpose.” But then he tells us that “Paley and Dennett agree there is [imbued purpose] in organisms,” suggesting that Dennett (and his kind of Darwinist) agree with Paley that some kind of purpose works in biological evolution.

Any casual look at a dictionary definition of “purpose” shows that the word connotes a purpose in some mind or arranged by some intelligent being. For example:

Webster’s New World Dictionary defines “purpose” as 1.something one intends to get or do. Intention, Aim 2.Resolution, determination 3. the object for which something exists or is done. It gives as synonyms: INTEND, INTENTION.

Obviously, our definitions of purpose imply connection with a mind or intelligent giver of purpose. When Wright mentions “higher purpose,” he surely insinuates some aim or goal set down by some intelligent agency. Throughout his book, he relies a lot on the Logos concept, which he takes from the ancient Jewish theologian, Philo. Obviously Wright’s “higher purpose” working in history is another way of referring to Philo’s Logos principle.

But this talk of “higher purpose” and the Logos is a long way from anything that Daniel Dennett wrote about in his exposition of Darwinian Natural selection in his book, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea.

Dennett elaborates his interpretation of Darwin’s theory [my highlighting]:

“What Darwin discovered was not really one algorithm but, rather, a large class of related algorithms that he had no clear way to distinguish. We can now reformulate his fundamental idea as follows: Life on earth has been generated over billions of years in a single branching tree —the tree of life— by one algorithmic process or another.” (Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Simon & Schuster, 1995, p.51)
“ . . . Here, then, is Darwin’s dangerous idea: The algorithmic level is the level that best accounts for the speed of the antelope, the wing of the eagle, the shape of the orchid, the diversity of species, and all the other occasions for wonder in the world of nature. It is hard to believe that something as mindless and mechanical as an algorithm could produce such wonderful things. No matter how impressive the products of an algorithm, the underlying process always consists of nothing but a set of individually mindless steps succeeding each other without the help of any intelligent supervision; they are “automatic” by definition: the workings of an automaton.(Ibid., p. 59)

Dennett sees this process of natural selection as being a type of algorithm:

“Darwin offered a skeptical world a scheme for creating Design out of Chaos without the aid of Mind. . . The theoretical power of Darwin’s abstract scheme was due to several features that Darwin .. identified, and appreciated better that many of his supporters, but lacked the terminology to describe explicitly. . . Darwin had discovered the power of an algorithm. An algorithm is a ..formal process that can be counted on —logically— to yield a certain sort of result whenever it is “run” or instantiated. . . [Algorithms have an] underlying mindlessness: Although the overall design of the procedure may be brilliant, or yield brilliant results, each constituent step, as well as the transition between steps is utterly simple. … simple enough for a dutiful idiot to perform — or for a straightforward mechanical device to perform.

(Ibid., pp. 59-60)

Dennett elaborates on this interpretation of Darwin’s theory:

As we well know, Darwin showed that higher, complex forms of life evolved from lower, simpler forms of life by the natural selection alone. Thus, we have refutation of the traditional view that complexity could never arise from the less complex except by intervention of an external, intelligent designer

. (Ibid, p.153)

Dennett states the upshot:

“Darwin explains a world of final causes and teleological laws with a principle that is … mechanistic but —more fundamentally — utterly independent of “meaning” or “purpose” . .

(Ibid, p.153)

In summary, Daniel Dennett shows that the main thrust of the Darwinian response to all creationists and intelligent design advocates is that the wonderful complexity and apparent design found in nature can be explained on a strictly natural, material basis. Yes, it is understandable that we should stand in awe at the physical laws that governed the formation of the universe, at the incredibly fine tuned forces and physical relations, at the unimaginable complexity of the DNA molecule and other building blocks of life, and at the workings of the brain leading to the emergence of high level mental activity (Mind); and understandable that some commentators, like Robert Wright, should invent signs of purpose and design in all this.

Ironically for Mr. Wright, Dennett’s main work on Darwinian natural selection is a categorical rejection of people like Robert Wright (“those who find signs of purpose and design”). We can reject his misguided suggestion that Dennett endorsed his misbegotten, undeveloped philosophy of a “higher purpose” working in the biosphere and universe too.

Was it God or Monica Lewinsky?

How did we get there, GW Bush as leader of the western world for two terms?

I recall that during his first term, GW Bush reportedly said that God had called him to the presidency. He said this in a conversation with one of his favorite tele-evangelists, maybe Billy Graham. My reaction was NO WAY, BUSH! God had nothing to do with it.

So how did we come to have the most mediocre of all mediocre presidents elected twice (2000 and 2004) to lead the nation? I would argue that his election in 2000 came about because of these factors: Monica Lewinski, whose sexual dalliance with Wm. Clinton hurt the Al Gore campaign; the electoral college, which gave Bush an electoral victory despite the fact that Al Gore won the popular vote nation wide; election fraud in Florida, followed by a political decision by conservatives on the Supreme Court giving junior Bush a very questionable victory in Florida.

So we had this not-quite-ready-for-prime-time man as our president for a four-year term, during which the tragedy of September 11, 2001 happened, followed by the so-called ‘war on terrorism.’ And GW Bush and his team exploited this to the hilt. He became a “war president.” His political operatives,led by Karl Rove, set about scaring voters into thinking that, unless the administration’s policies were followed, we would lose the war to the terrorists. So we came to the election of 2004, in which the Republican strategy was to convince voters that unless we retained the glorious leader, our Commander-in-Chief, the terrorists would eat us up. The strategy was successful. Of course, the Karl Rove dirty tricks and swift-boat-campaign smearing of John Kerry also helped. So in 2004, with questionable returns in Ohio, the voters returned this less-than-fabulous GW Bush to the White House.

It wasn’t until later in the second term (2006) that voters finally woke up and detected the true colors of Mr. Bush and rejected his Congressional Republican allies in the 2006 mid-term election. After the tragic failures of the Iraqi policy, the utter incompetence in dealing with the Katrina disaster, the corruption and ineffectiveness of the Congressional Republicans, the mess in the Justice Department created by Cheney, Rove, and Gonzales, and a few other events — only then did the majority of citizens finally awake to the fraudulence, corruption, and general incompetence of the GW Bush administration.

So who were the best allies to the GW Bush political fortunes? Try Monica Lewinski and Osama bin Laden (and his merry bunch of terrorists). Without these elements, our man GW Bush would never have come within shouting distance of the White House.

Isn’t the study of history wonderful?

Another note regarding the appearance of General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker before the congressional committees to explain the so-called troop surge in Iraq: General David Petraeus looked great in his General’s uniform, with all those ribbons and silver stars. Obviously, the congressional committee members were star struck! By comparison, the ambassador to Iraq, Crocker, looked very drab in his businessman’s suit. Why didn’t Petraeus lend him a few ribbons to make him look impressive too?

(I asked my wife to make me a jacket like Petraeus wore, with ribbons and silver stars. But she refused.)

Charles Rulon: Science, God and the origin of life

Here I offer more interesting and insightful remarks by Charles Rulon on the question of the origin of life and the issue of synthesizing life in the laboratory.

Origin of life research

By insisting on naturalistic hypotheses instead of falling back on “God did it,” many of the key steps in the transformation from inani­mate matter to living cells are now understood in con­sid­erable detail. Major dis­coveries in the past 60 years have already led to creating genetic material, pro­teins and other biochemical structures that begin to bridge the gap between non-life and life. In fact, some researchers are now in the process of build­ing their own living cells from scratch. Others are slowly fill­ing the gap between their computer models which simu­late evolu­tion and the actual biochemistry lab, itself.

Still, many puzzles re­main—puzzles that are fuel for God beliefs. A few theistic scien­tists have written books about the “finger of God” being necessary to bridge the gap between non-life and life. But such theistic arguments, strongly re­futed by other scientists, don’t lead to new experiments, so just tend to stop research.

Q. If scientists can’t explain life’s origin, how can they be sure of our evolution?

A. The overwhelming evidence in support of evo­lu­tion does not come from origin of life experi­ments, but from the millions of al­ready dis­covered fossils, genetic analyses, plus numerous other converging lines of solid evi­dence. As an analogy, just because scientists haven’t made a chicken egg from scratch doesn’t mean that chicken eggs don’t develop into chickens.

Q. Aren’t living cells much too complex to have evolved naturally?

A. First, microscopic fossil evidence indicates that ancient cells were far simpler than most cells found today. Second, and of considerable significance, there never has been a clear-cut distinction between what is obviously alive and what is not. Instead, a continuum exists.

There are viroids which are short circles of genetic material, yet are respon­sible for over a dozen different plant diseases. There are viruses (genes surrounded by a protein coat), not considered alive because they do not have cells and need a host, yet not exactly dead either, since they have genes, can reproduce, and can evolve through natural selection. These viruses come in all shapes, sizes and levels of complexity. There are even entities called satellites—metaviruses that can replicate only within a virus that is already inside a host cell.

In 1992 there was the discovery of a truly monstrous virus officially known as Mimivirus (because it mimics a bacterium in many ways). This virus has more than 900 genes and is much more genetically complex than all previously known viruses, not to mention a number of parasitic bacteria. With the Mimivirus, the boundary between viruses and bacteria became officially blurred.

There is now considerable evidence that viruses were involved very early on in the evolutionary emergence of life. Most of the genetic material on this planet appears to be viral in origin. Their ability to interact with organisms and to move genetic material around make viruses major players in driving the evolution of new species. Half of all human DNA is believed to have originally come from viruses.

Most living cells today have a nucleus. Some scientists believe that a large DNA-based virus took up residence inside a bacterial cell more than a billion years ago to create the first cell nucleus. If so, all life forms today with nucleated cells may have descended from viruses.

Even so, there still exists an ancient line of microbes known as the archaea, which have no nucleus and may make up as much as one-third of all life on earth.

Q. Isn’t it still possible that God inter­vened to create life from non-life and even to guarantee our evolution?

A. How is that hypothesis scientifically testable? Besides, even if there were a god somewhere in the origin and evolution of life picture, that still doesn’t mean by any stretch of logic that this god must be the God of the Christians. Maybe this “cosmic being” merely evolved humans as “fast food” for his truly chosen species which is now touring our galaxy.

The basic problem, of course, with all such God beliefs from a scientific perspective is that such beliefs tend to stop re­search. To glibly say that God did it is mere­ly to give ignorance a name. We’ll never get closer to discover­ing how life might actually have originated if we keep filling in our gaps in knowl­edge with “God did it” answers.

What we do know so far is that the scientific evidence currently supports the hypothesis that “life” gradually appeared through an accumulation of genetic typos committed by hordes of mindless microscopic “replication machines”. What we do know is that the more scientists have learned about liv­ing things, the clearer it has be­come that all of life’s processes, from fertili­zation to the evo­lu­tion of the human brain, appear to be based entirely on chem­ical and physi­cal laws. No laws of na­ture have been bypassed or bro­ken. No extra mira­cles or “vi­tal forces” seem to be required. It just doesn’t seem neces­sary (and hasn’t for a long time now) to posit super­natural inter­ven­tions for the origin of life or for human evolution.

by Charles L. Rulon. Emeritus, Life & Health Sciences
Long Beach City College

Key web sites for progress on the origin of life problem: : Devoted to the astro­nom­ical, chemical and biological aspects of the origin of life problem. : This is NASA’s “Origins” program page. : A “Scientific American–Ask the Experts” site where concise, up-to-date information on what we know about the origin of life is given.

In the mid-l950′s Dr. Sidney Fox, a spe­cialist in pro­tein biochemistry at the Univer­sity of Miami, and his colleagues heated a dry mixture of amino acids. The amino acids automatically hooked together to form chains of from 30 to l00 amino acids long. These “pro­tein­oids,” as Fox named them, were strik­ingly similar to true proteins and, according to Fox, could have served as the raw material from which life evolved. Not only did protein-like macro-molecules automatically formed from amino acids, but when these proteinoids were exposed to water, they automati­cally formed little spheres which have many properties similar to today’s cells. There are num­erous published research­ed reports with copious data showing that many modern proteins appear to have derived from a few such ancestral proteins.

By 1993 computer scientists, microbiolo­gists, chemists, physicists, mathe­maticians and evolu­tionary theorists had succeeded in creating creatures that looked and acted very much like living organisms. They grew, ate, repro­duced, mutated, fought with each other and died—and they did all this spontane­ously, with­out inter­ference or help from their human creators (Levy, S., Artificial Life: The Quest for a New Creation -1993).

By 2010 see Scientific American: Craig Venter’s progress: