Monthly Archives: April 2010

How Randomness and Luck (Good and Bad) Affect Our Lives

“What incredibly bad luck!” I thought a few years ago when reading a news story about a bizarre, fatal accident suffered by a commuter on a multiple-level freeway exchange (in a California city). He was driving home after work on a lower level of the freeway when a dog fell from a higher level through his windshield killing the driver. Apparently the dog, a large breed, had fallen out of the bed of pick-up on the higher level and then been hit by oncoming traffic and knocked over the barrier, falling onto the lower level and through the windshield of the unfortunate driver below. This unfortunate person was killed by a random event, ‘random’ in the sense that nobody could have predicted it.

I was reminded of this tragic meeting at an ‘intersection’ between driver and falling dog when I started reading a book, The Drunkard’s Walk, by Leonard Mlodinow which, among other topics, deals with those random events which have significant impact on our lives. It is an understatement to say that the bizarre freeway accident significantly altered the lives of the unfortunate commuter and his family. But not all such meetings at ‘intersections’ are bad ones; let’s look at one that directly affected Mlodinow himself.

In the opening chapter of his book, Mlodinow recounts another ‘intersection,’ with great potential for tragedy but which proved a fortunate one. This happened when his father was a young man and in a Nazi concentration camp in Europe. The young man, a Polish Jew, was the only survivor of his family (his wife and children had already been killed by the Nazi); he survived the concentration camp through a very unlikely event in which his theft of bread resulted in a good job with the German baker, instead of bringing him an immediate execution, as normally happened in such cases. The upshot was that the father survived the Nazi concentration camp and migrated to the United States after the war ended, where he met and married Leonard’s mother and raised a second family. That unlikely intersection between the father and the German baker, who just happened to be in the mood to spare the life of a prisoner and award him a good job, allowed the eventuality that our author, Leonard Mlodinow, was born and went on to become a physicist, who writes interesting books.

So we could say Leonard Mlodinow has a personal interest in one of the themes of his book; this is role that randomness, accident, and contingency play in nature and in our lives. But why select this title, The Drunkard’s Walk? As Mlodinow states it, the wildly meandering, unpredictable path of a drunken person can be seen as a metaphor for our lives. Very few things turn out as we had planned them. Random events which we can never foresee or predict often determine the course of our lives: where we get our education or training, what line of work we get into, the spouse we marry, and so. Unpredictable accidents can change the course of our lives.

This is contrary to how many of us tend to think about the ways of the world and our lives’ prospects, at least when we were starting out. Prior to suffering the accidents and contingencies that life brings, or on the fortunate side, prior to be enjoying the rewards that equally accidental and unpredictable events bring us, we might think that we mostly control how things turn out: that we can plan and predict with fair accuracy much that happens in our lives. Undeniably there are people who can honestly say that much of their life went according to plan. Yes, there were unpredictable events they could not have predicted, but the plans were flexible enough to allow for unforeseen contingencies. Here we might think of the U. S. Constitution and the way it was framed so that the laws and governmental structures based on it were flexible enough to deal with all those subsequent contingencies that nobody could have predicted back in the years immediately following 1776.

But for the greater majority of us, it is reasonable to say that many events came into play that we never expected or planned, or could have controlled; yet these events greatly altered the direction that our lives took. So many of us can agree with Mlodinow when he characterizes most people’s life as resembling a drunkard’s walk: willy-nilly, bouncing here and there and not following any predictable path. How many of us can claim that our lives turned out as we might have imagined and planned (or as our parents planned) when we were finishing high school? Did we really manage to marry that beautiful young girl who was our “true love” in high school or college, or did we end up marrying someone completely unforeseen, in many cases a fortunate intersection in our lives with someone from a different part of the world? Did we really think that we would end up as computer professionals when we didn’t even know what computers were when we planned our moves following high school? “We were headed to college to become engineers and teachers; but an accident occurred and we ended up in the military, where we were trained in electronics. Then there was a great need for computer programmers. And next thing we knew, there we were busy writing computer code.” For many of us, when we reflect on the path our lives have taken, we shall agree with Mlodinow: in many ways our life’s path has resembled the haphazard path of a drunken sailor.

But Mlodinow goes beyond affirming that much is chance occurrence and uncertainty in our lives; he also asserts that we often overstate the degree to which we control things; the degree to which our successes are due to talent and hard work and our failures due to incompetence. He claims that chance and randomness play as great a role in determining success and failure in much of what we do. His examples to support these claims cite cases in which too much credit is given to the CEO for a company’s success (or to a coach for the football team’s success) and too much blame on the same CEO when the company doesn’t do so well. As he states it, often the results are not due to our talent, intelligence, hard work and planning, as we would like to believe. Again, his over-riding point is that randomness, chance, accident and generally unpredictable conditions play a much greater role than most people admit. Anyone who follows sports, e.g., the fortunes of NBA teams, knows that Mlodinow’s view is mostly correct. A team’s success or failure hinges on many factors, some include the talent of the players, the cohesiveness of the team, and coaching tactics. But many of the factors are unpredictable: injuries or illness to key players, personal issues and psychological problems that reduce team “chemistry,” the effects of age, the rise of young talent on opposing teams, even the economy and political situation can affect a team’s fortunes. Just ask any sports gambler about the randomness and unpredictability of such things.

Whether Mlodinow is correct in his general theme of randomness and chance occurrences in nature is an interesting question that we could touch on. Scientists and philosophers debate whether the apparent randomness in nature is really an aspect of nature or is just a result of our limited knowledge of the workings of nature. Many quantum physicist see uncertainty as integral to physical nature; but others, notably Albert Einstein, see it as just an indication of our limited knowledge. (Einstein quoted as saying that he could not imagine that God would play dice with the universe.) Mlodinow himself seems to equate randomness with unpredictability, which suggests that randomness is an epistemological issue, i.e., a matter of the limits of our knowledge. This would imply that the apparent randomness might not really show as a real property of nature. But plenty of debate remains among scientists and philosophers of science on this point; and quantum physics, at least, seems to indicate that at the sub-atomic level physical nature is inherently random and indeterminate

I shall defer discussion of this important scientific and philosophical issue. Presently, I will elaborate some on Mlodinow’s view of the randomness and uncertainty with regard to historical and social reality. Setting aside the deeper scientific and metaphysical issues regarding the ontological status of randomness in nature, I believe that there is general agreement that ‘randomness’ as unpredictability is a fact. In other words, events which are humanly unpredictable are common both in nature and in history, and can have fateful consequences for people’s lives. Examples are fairly easy to cite. Natural catastrophes such as earthquakes, hurricanes, droughts, floods, volcano eruptions can have disruptive effects on whole societies and alter significantly the lives of countless people. In this connection, think of recent events such as the hurricane Katrina, which hit New Orleans and other parts of the gulf area; and consider the mostly tragic consequences for so many people in that city and in that area. Then as the year 2004 came to a close the Indonesian people suffered a Tsunami that killed tens of thousands and greatly changed the lives of millions.

Earlier in our history of the twentieth century, we had the dust bowl and drought which uprooted the lives of many people in the southwest. More recently, think of the earthquake that devastated the capital of Haiti and devastated also the lives of millions of its inhabitants. From the perspective of most human society, including those humans most directly affected by these catastrophes, the events were examples of those aspects of nature that shatter the illusion that the world is regular and predictable, that humans can plan for all contingencies, and expect things to work according to plan. The fact is that sometimes we can; but sometimes we cannot. What we can manage is often analogous to a roll of the dice at a Las Vegas casino, and our best intentions and best efforts are often secondary factors in comparison to the uncertainty and randomness that nature has in store for us. We tend to get accustomed (and become somewhat complacent) to the regular seasons and patterns in our world; we expect them to continue their regular, predictable pattern indefinitely; and when this pattern is interrupted we are left shocked and devastated. We’re much like Bertrand Russell’s chicken, which was fed regularly (like clockwork) every morning and never expected that fateful change in pattern, when one day instead of being fed as usual, the farmer wrung its neck.

When we turn to human-made catastrophes it becomes even more apparent that our best thought-out plans are often rudely and tragically disrupted and canceled. History gives us many examples in which war, economic depression, conflict between groups, genocide, conquest, and defeat in the competition of economies and technologies result in tragic disruption of ordinary existence. Does anyone doubt or deny that much death, suffering, dislocation, enslavement and oppression result from each of the many wars that human society engages? The extent and character of the resulting tragedy are never fully predictable beforehand. If they were, people would never assent to their nation’s penchant for aggressive policies and military adventures. In each case we have situations in which both good and bad luck (the roll of the dice, the draw of the card) significantly affect the direction that people’s lives take.

From recent history, consider the fate of the young men and women unlucky enough to have be born at a time that threw them into any of the following situations: pre-Columbian Americans (in a Caribbean Island, in Central and South America, Mexico and North America) who happened to be in the path of invading Europeans who eventually (with the help of diseases to which the Americans had no immunity) destroyed the cultures and lives of entire generations. If you were a healthy, young West African living at the time of ‘Slave Economies,’ there was a fairly good chance that you would be captured by slave traders and shipped across the Atlantic where the rest of your life would be one of enslavement; and your children and theirs would likewise spend their lives as the slave property of some slave owner. Later, in the 1860s in the U.S., a tragic and deadly civil war would be fought before slavery could be officially abolished in the United States. Many young Americans, both in the North and in the South, unlucky enough to come of age at the wrong time, lost their lives or had their lives brutally disrupted by this event, one which could not be predicted in terms of its deadliness, destructiveness, and consequences. Here you have a number of major historical events and trends, none of whose exact nature and effects could have been predicted beforehand; and all of which proved fateful for millions of lives.

Entire generations of young men in England, France, and Germany who happened to come of military age as World War I was starting and who ended up as the millions of casualties in futile battlefields in Europe. None of these young people planned early, brutal deaths; but the tragic contingencies of history brought them that fate. In the twentieth century history of the United States, the financial collapse of the late 1920s followed by the Great Depression of the 1930s had great and lasting consequences for millions of lives.

Consider the later periods of the twentieth century when World War II brought untold tragedy and devastation. Admittedly, World War II gave us great technological progress in many areas which eventually were beneficial to societies; but it also wrought great advances in the technology of war, death and destruction, along with the general acceptance by ‘civilized’ nations of battle tactics that no longer distinguished between combatants and civilians. Consider the emergence of totalitarian nations that adopted policies of genocide. We cannot ignore the millions of victims (mostly Jews) of the Nazi Holocaust and the genocide carried out by Stalinist Soviet Union. Let us not forget the millions of people in Europe, in North American, in Japan and China who were victims of war, whose lives were destroyed and uprooted by events not of their own choosing or for which they could have planned. A young Jewish couple planning marriage and children, but trapped in Europe in the early 1940s; a young Russian peasant farmer just working to support his family, but who fell into disfavor with the ruling group at the Kremlin; a young Japanese girls who just happened to live in Hiroshima at the time of the Atomic bombing of that city. Chance and bad luck put these individuals in the path of event which they could not predict and which disrupted (to state it mildly) their lives in tragic ways. Again, chance and the roll of the dice determined what awaited these unfortunate human individuals.

The events of September 11, 2001 when the World Trade Center in New York city and the Pentagon were attacked offers another example of a happening that affected the lives of many of us. Our paths intersect with the paths of others in a variety of ways. Some are good intersections, as when we meet by accident that person who comes to be our inspiration or who becomes our life’s partner. But some are unfortunate accidents (an automobile collides with us) and tragic, as those ‘intersections’ in people’s lives as a result of the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001. We have not forgotten the tragedies of all those unfortunate victims (those occupying the Twin Towers at the time the airliners impacted the buildings; those who happened to board the same flights (American Airlines, United Airlines) as the terrorists) whose paths intersected. Little can be said to lessen the pain and loss of the survivors and the families of the direct victims. In addition, millions of people’s lives were greatly affected by the aftermath of the attacks; much of this in unpredictable ways. Here think of the consequential wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; the increased security and restrictions of the Patriot Act, and the resulting economic conditions. Many of us employed by United Airlines at the time of the attacks saw our company’s condition deteriorate, until it had to declare bankruptcy. Many of us lost our positions with United or had to retire early. The affects of an unforeseen attack on the US on Americans and many people in other nations are still with us; and cannot be completely accounted. But who, if anyone, foresaw in 1999 or 2000 the likelihood of such an event? Very few to be sure. Most of us were caught once again by that “roll of the dice” which Mlodinow talks about.

Mlodinow calls such events as war, genocide, and economic depression extreme events which can greatly affect the lives of millions of people. But, as he notes, it does not require extreme events to bring out the role that randomness, unpredictability, and chance occurrences play in our lives. Within the context of larger events, extreme or otherwise, there are countless accidents, contingencies, and unforeseen “meetings at intersections” that greatly influence the paths our lives take. Many of us can recount events and choices in our own lives which bear out what Mlodinow says concerning the general nature of human lives: that they are generally marked by chance occurrences, fateful accidents, and contingencies we never could have foreseen or predicted. This does not imply that we don’t have any control over the direction our lives take; but it does suggest that we can do a better job moving in the direction we choose if we recognize the role that luck, chance occurrences and randomness play in our lives.

Concerning Wittgenstein’s Rejection of Private Language

Recently I stated in writing my general agreement with Ludwig Wittgenstein’s view that a ‘private language’ is not a tenable idea. Upon reading this, one of my correspondents expressed opposition by stating his view that we can discern ideas in certain writers which are not entirely communicable (and which could comprise a language). He wondered whether these wouldn’t count as counter examples to Wittgenstein’s thesis.

Besides my correspondent, other people disagree with the conclusion that a ‘private language’ is impossible; they find this to be a controversial and doubtful claim. After all, they argue, can’t a person have certain ideas, and even some ‘words’ expressing those ideas, which he never discloses to anyone else? Couldn’t he mentally retrieve these ideas and privately held ‘words’ when he desires or requires them? Don’t some artists, poets, and composers have ideas which only they fully comprehend and which they attempt to express in their art? Can’t we call such privately held ideas a ‘private language’?

Other examples which might qualify as ‘private language include those religious experiences called speaking in tongues (Pentacostals?) in which the ‘speaking’ seems to be nothing but gibberish but which the speaker claims as the Holy Spirit ‘speaking’ through him. Would this be a ‘private language’?

One more candidate as a private language is the case in which all speakers of a language have died except for one person who knows the language, can speak it and understand it perfectly; but nobody else understands a word. (This actually happens with some small native American cultures which gradually die out.) Wouldn’t this be case of a ‘private language,’ private to the one survivor?

Before I reply to my correspondent and to these purported counter-examples to Wittgenstein, I need to do a simple exposition of Wittgenstein’s claim regarding private languages.

The notion of a private language is taken up by Wittgenstein in Part I of his Philosophical Investigations. As with most ideas in philosophy, you can find some philosophers who agree with him and others (e.g. the English philosopher A.J. Ayer) who disagree with Wittgenstein’s view that a private language is impossible. Let’s see what we make of this important issue in philosophy of mind and that of language.

What does Wittgenstein contend with regard to the issue of private language? Based on my study of his remarks on the issue (mostly in his book, Philosophical Investigations) and my reading of some of the vast commentary on his philosophy, the main point concerns the meaning of terms. For any language to function in communicating and expressing ideas, concepts, thoughts, etc., the words and sentences of that language must have a relatively stable meaning, and this requires that users of that language observe rules of meaning. This means that we should be able to make sense of cases in which we get the meaning right and those in which we don’t. In other words, the notion of a rule seems to imply the possibility of correct and incorrect usages. And the notion of meaning implies the application of some rule.

Wittgenstein asks whether the application of a rule makes any sense with regard to a putative private language, one exclusive to the subject alone. How could the private individual, without any objective reference to other speakers or to a rule book or to some standard apart from his own private impressions, make any sense of getting a meaning right or getting it wrong? He argues that this makes no sense when applied to a strictly private context.

The important point is that one try to conceive of this ‘private’ language as strictly or completely private. When one attempts this it becomes evident that one must refer to standards or rules of meaning outside the private ‘stage’ to make any sense of following the rules, and to make any sense of getting the meaning of the words right, and to make sense of the possibility of making errors in our use of words; and thus to make any sense of the very notion of a language.

This is how I interpret Wittgenstein’s position, which I find rationally compelling. The very idea of language implies inter-personal communication and expression. Even the most subjective poets and mystics, when they attempt to express their inner most experiences, must rely on some form of language that can at least partly be understood by others. This implies the observance of some rules of meaning, which implies a social practice. Others, besides the private thoughts of the speaker-writer, are essential to the practice.
(The etymology of the word “language” itself, the Latin “lingua” refers to the tongue, thus to speech. With the invention of writing this function of the tongue includes also the hand, whether manipulating a pen or a keyboard. In any case, whether speech or writing, language is a way of inter-personal communication and expression. It is a social phenomenon, not at all a strictly private, mental one.)

Others disagree with this view; but, frankly, I cannot make much sense of their position. It is true that individuals claim styles of expression which nobody really understands and which therefore might be called a ‘private language’ of sorts. But this would be using the word “language” in an extended, metaphorical sense. It would be the type of expression and ‘language’ which you’re free to take anyway you please. My view is that a ‘language’ which one is free to take any way one pleases is not any kind of language at all. Even the most secret, cryptic code requires at some stage rules of interpretation. Otherwise, it would not have any function as a means of communication and inter-personal expression.

On reading this, my correspondent raised a question about the language used by writers like Nietzsche, for example, who in his famous book Thus Spoke Zarathustra, refers to Zarathustra’s eagle and serpent: “What is Nietzsche alluding to by these images? Could it be the Apollonian and Dionysian dualistic forces? Or is it a reference to different aspects of creation?” The point the questioner is making concerns the notion that Nietzsche’s language in that work is private to him in the sense that we cannot be sure of all the aspects of his meaning.

This raises an interesting issue about the writings of people like Nietzsche. How exactly (if “exactly” even applies) do we interpret all the allusions, metaphors, imagery, analogies, etc.? This makes for much interpretive work for scholars and other writers (e.g. Walter Kaufmann offers excellent interpretations of Nietzsche). Yes, this style of writing, like much literary, poetic work, raises interesting problems of interpretation and meaning. Consider the centuries of debate over different interpretations of religious texts (Old Testament, New Testament, the Koran, etc.). Most great works of literature have multiple levels of meaning; and it takes good critics and scholars to give good interpretations of all that the writer is about. And there will always be a variety of different, even opposing, interpretations.

But these facts about literature do not say anything about the possibility of a strictly private language; at most they remind us that any individual can keep certain things private and not give full expression to his exact meaning. (Maybe he really intends to express ambiguity and a degree of vagueness? After all, in literature these surely have their function.) I doubt that Wittgenstein would deny any of this. Writers like Franz Kafka and Martin Heidegger often claimed that nobody truly understood them. We might then say that an important part of what they meant to say remained private to them. But this is simply a version of a secret or something I cannot reveal to others, for one reason or another. Sometimes I cannot reveal it because I lack the words or the talent (e.g. the talent of a Shakespeare) to express what I really mean. Sometimes I choose to keep my ideas obscure and hard to interpret. But notice that none of this requires a “private language” as such. In fact, it presupposes language as a tool of my culture by which I express my ideas and experiences to others, and sometimes intentionally impose limitations on the extent of that expression.

The private language issue is a conceptual issue. It simply asks that one think carefully about what language entails; and then try to apply this to a strictly private phenomenon or experience, one limited to the individual’s immediate experience and making absolutely no reference to anything beyond that. Wittgenstein argues that when you engage in this though experiment you will find that the notion of a strictly private language is ultimately an untenable one. A poet or a Nietzsche who writes works in which they attempt to express their ideas to the reader are not engaged in a private language. How could they be? In philosophy, the notion of a language that purports to be private might be applied to Descartes in his Meditations when he purports to reduce all his thinking just to his private ideas, with no reference whatsoever to material world. A metaphysical idealist, who claims all reality is nothing but ideas present to his mind (solipsism?) also purports to engage in private “meaning” (viz., language), insofar as he tries to express his strange perspective of things. But Wittgenstein would argue that Descartes and the idealist really do not accomplish what they claim to do. I agree.

Finally some quick replies to the purported counter-examples posed at the beginning. First let’s consider the one that asks whether a person can have certain ideas, and even some ‘words’ expressing those ideas, which he never discloses to anyone else. Could this count as a private language? No, not in the primary sense of the word “language.” People can keep different secrets they never disclose to anyone, and even invent some private technique by which they remember to themselves these secrets. But as soon as they attempt to communicate these or try to express them to others, some form of language is required; and it cannot be ‘private’ in the strict sense of that term. Second, we have the case of speaking in tongues, which nobody can understand. At best, others can surmise that the person is having a highly emotional, religious experience in which they give expression to some feeling or other. But so long as none of this makes sense to others (there’s no translation key), this also fails as a language of any kind, private or public. Third, the case of one, lonely surviving speaker of a language that is dying out does not prove the reality of a private language either. It is an accident of history that only one person can speak and understand the language; but the language is a public one. There were accepted rules of usage that members of the tribe recognized and applied, and which the one surviving member of that unfortunate tribe also accepts, understands, and could apply should there be a situation calling for its use. These are the hallmarks of a public language, not a private one.

I conclude that Wittgenstein was correct in arguing that the notion of a private language is untenable.


Recently I had an exchange of views on the issue of the function of philosophy with a couple of philosophical acquaintances, Spanos and Pablo. It went something like this:

Spanos started our exchange:

“My view is that the center of all philosophy is the question about “reality in itself”, past present and future. When Aristotle wrote,

“And indeed the question which was raised of old and is raised now, and is always the subject of doubt viz. what being is, is just the question, what is substance?”

he stated the very heart of all the different subjects he had been pursuing. He had seen that they all lead back to this central issue. In my view, that is as true for us today as it was for him then.”

My (Juan’s) response:

What is being? What is substance? What is “reality in itself”? Questions like these, you say, are at the center of all philosophy. The issues they raise, you seem to say, are the central issues of all philosophy. This is a very surprising view about the nature of philosophy, one which I don’t share.

Surely there aren’t any good reasons or evidence to support this claim about all the work in philosophy. Do you really want to say that these questions of traditional metaphysics are the central issues for any philosophy practiced by any philosopher? For example, they were not the central issue for a large group of 20th century analytical philosophers, like Russell, GE Moore, L. Wittgenstein, Gilbert Ryle, and John Austin. They were not the central issue for pragmatists like William James and John Dewey, or the later pragmatists Sidney Hook and Richard Rorty. Such questions were not the central issue for existentialist philosophers like J.P. Sartre and Albert Camus, nor for their precursor, Friedrich Nietzsche. Nor were such questions the central issue for two philosophical writers, Walter Kaufmann and Eric Hoffer, for whom I have great respect; nor are such questions of any importance for one of the better philosophers in areas of evolutionary thought and philosophy of mind, Daniel Dennett. Do you claim that what these people practice is not really philosophy?

At best, your claim about the “central issue” of philosophy only applies to a certain brand of metaphysics, a brand of metaphysics which has some historical interest, but not much besides that.
Any philosopher who interests me limits his reference to reality as understood and apprehended by human beings; and he uses those tools which human culture has developed: natural science, mathematics, historical analysis, logic, linguistic analysis and such. You might say that this reality is only a human-based phenomenon, and not ‘reality in itself.’ But I have yet to hear much that is truly interesting or relevant to “real world issues and problems” by those who talk about something called ‘reality in itself.’

(I guess many people never learned one of the really important points brought out by Kant’s critical philosophy, that speculative metaphysics is not viable. I suppose people want to emphasize Kant’s mistake of leaving “the door open” for those who wish to ‘explore’ transcendental realms.)

Furthermore, the arguments which purport to show that we can never grasp reality are themselves suspect and nowhere close to cogent. (I have argued elsewhere that they all arise from the false assumption that Descartes gave Western philosophy: namely, that we need to justify all knowledge from a subjective perspective.) Of course, there are limits to our “cognitive powers” and we should pay attention to “the nature of our abilities.” But science and scientifically oriented philosophies admit this much. It is in such areas that the real work, “the heavy lifting”, is being done, as opposed to a few remaining traditional philosophers still searching for “sky hooks” that will pull them up into the land of ‘Being,’ ‘substance’ and ‘reality in itself’. In short, there is a lot of exciting and relevant work being done by scientists and informed philosophers; and this has absolutely nothing to do with traditionalists, metaphysical notions of the Being, Substance, or ‘reality in itself.’

Pablo steps in:

Though I agree with Juan’s suggestion that we limit what we can and cannot talk about meaningfully, he comes dangerously close to making the claim that if it isn’t scientifically meaningful, it simply isn’t meaningful at all. That’s close to the view of scientism which I can’t accept. I think much in the realm of philosophy is meaningful though, unfortunately, some is not. The problem is how to separate the two categories which is itself a philosophical issue. More importantly, there are human intellectual issues that simply cannot be resolved by science and I insist the only place left for their resolution is in clear, coherent philosophical argumentation using all of the philosophical tools at our disposal.

Scientists represent, in their equations, a simple ‘t‘ to represent time. They use ‘l‘ to represent length and ‘l-cubed‘ to represent space. But we all know there are volumes that have been written about space and time which are the result of different philosophical perspectives, not to mention other issues involved in the philosophy of science. So it seems to me clearly unfair to reject certain locutions in philosophy –as Juan has done — as being meaningless unless some kind of clear-cut demarcation can be instituted to do the job. I do make distinctions between what I claim entail meaningful philosophical discussions (I would exclude much of Existentialist writing as an example, especially Heidegger) but I would be hard-pressed to put forward a clear-cut algorithm to separate the wheat from the chaff, unfortunately.

So even granting that much has been done in philosophy without getting bogged down in metaphysical disputes, it doesn’t follow that what has been done is useful, or true, or the only way to go. I’m afraid metaphysics is here to stay (a while longer at any rate) and from its groin has come some very useful concepts and principles we can use in our everyday lives from practical ethics to political systems, to knowledge and on and on.

My response to Pablo:

No, I don’t claim that science establishes the limits of meaningful talk. I am not a Logical Positivist in that sense. After all, I have studied both sides of these issues, e.g., the young Wittgenstein’s Tractatus (which many logical positivists read as an attempt to set the limits of meaningful discourse, and which Wittgenstein denied) and the writings of the later Wittgenstein (Philosophical Investigations), who surely did not argue that science sets the limits of meaningful discourse. But if your philosophy purports to say something about the nature of reality or the nature of humanity, then it should at least take into account what the relevant sciences have to say; and it wouldn’t hurt if your philosophy at least imitated certain aspects of scientific inquiry, such as respect for facts, evidence, and peer evaluation. That’s the only sense in which I would argue that science is relevant to work in philosophy. But I am sure that I leave myself open to much rebuttal here.

My reply to Spanos was mostly limited to the questions regarding ‘being,’ ‘substance,’ and ‘reality-in-itself’ (throw in the mysterious “nothingness” too). We have discussed these issues for some time; and none of you have showed me that such notions have any clear application. This does not deny that historically such concepts have had good play and some of our great figures in philosophy might have used such concepts in interesting ways. I simply don’t see that they apply much to most of our contemporary issues.

However, with regard to claim that philosophy should model itself (in most respects) on the natural sciences (sometimes called “scientism”), the philosophers and writers that I admire (e.g., Ludwig Wittgenstein, Gilbert Ryle, John Dewey, Walter Kaufmann, Richard Rorty, Daniel Dennett, Friedrich Nietzsche, and various others) surely do not make that claim, and I don’t recall making it either (other than the in the restricted way stated above). Of course, you qualify your statement by asserting that I come close to the position of the early Logical Positivists: that only scientific-based statements are meaningful. This interpretation of my position is false.

There is plenty in philosophical literature which is not just analysis or elaboration of the work of science, and which is not modeled on science. What I stress is that philosophical discourse should at least strive for honesty, clarity and coherence, and that philosophers should not make obscurity a virtue, and should not offer vagueness and equivocation as profundity. I don’t have much patience for the pretentious type of speculative metaphysics which often parades as profound philosophy. Traditional metaphysics may have historical value, but when metaphysical writers indulge — past or present — see metaphysics as yielding a picture of ‘deep reality,’ philosophy suffers in the eyes of the contemporary intellectual world, in my view. But I accept the fact that others disagree and see much philosophical value in metaphysical speculation.  I simply do not.

More Mad Men and Philosophers – Illusions and Delusions of Freedom


Alberto and Ben are walking the Mojave Desert. They’re thirsty and eager to find water. In the distance they see what appears to be an oasis and body of water. Alberto thinks it is real and soon their thirst will be satisfied. Ben wonders if the vision is just an illusion. Only when they get closer will they discover who is right.


Alberto and Ben finally reach the oasis and the pool of fresh, cool water. As they slake their thirst, Alberto wonders whether this water which he drinks is really water, or just the appearance (sense datum, sensation in the mind) of water, which might not exist as water-in-itself. He wonders if the oasis that shades him and the water that he drinks are not just elaborate illusions synthesized by his mind.


Truman has lived his entire life in a gigantic bowl (with transparent walls) made to look like an ordinary environment of hills, forests, meadows, rivers, and mountains. Truman has always believed that there are no barriers to his world, and that, if he chooses, he can travel beyond his familiar surroundings and explore the world beyond. In reality, his world is enclosed and he cannot travel beyond its periphery. However, he never tries to pass beyond; and so lives his entire life with the illusion of freedom to wander.


Alberto and Ben have the freedom and resources to travel the world. So they take advantage of their privileged circumstances and travel to far and exotic places. Alberto revels in his freedom and fully enjoys his travels. Ben worries that it is all just one elaborate illusion. He’s afraid that they really haven’t freely traveled, since, as a metaphysically inclined student, he believes that everything (including their decision and actions) is determined.


People who are enslaved (or imprisoned) yearn for a freedom they do not possess; when they see the opportunity, they risk life and limb in an attempt at gaining that freedom.


Pangloss, who has never been enslaved or imprisoned and who is free to do as he likes, nevertheless yearns for a metaphysical freedom. He yearns to be a spirit who acts in isolation from all material factors that condition his actions.


Shawley asked: When we talk about free will we are talking about the mind? Is it is free to think?

Me: I share your perplexity, Shawley, which is why I issued these semi-comical, semi-jocular suggestions that philosophers’ worries often resemble the delusions of madmen. In reply to your question, I would say that the freedom “worth worrying about and worth talking about” (Dennett) is primarily freedom of choice and freedom of action. Even when stated in the old fashioned language of “freedom of will,” the problem concerns real choices and actions, not merely the freedom to think or imagine possible action. Of course, there is a real-world problem of ‘freedom of thought.’ But essentially it refers to freedom to express your ideas and beliefs without fear of persecution, not the mere ability to entertain thought

Shawley: Juan, then you seem to be saying that the average person in the U.S. has more free will than the average in, say, Dafur? Perhaps one has more of the exercise of free will here than there. To me ” w.o. fear of persecution” becomes merely a question in politics. .

Me: Yes, this is why our friend’s reply (Paul’s reply) to one of my examples is puzzling. Referring to my example of Truman, who thought he could move beyond his enclosed world when he really could not, he writes:

You end by saying he lives his entire life with the illusion of freedom to wander. Well, yes and no. Yes in the sense that he can’t wander outside of the bowl for he is permanently enclosed (as is the man in the locked room). However, he can deliberate as to whether he should leave the bowl and wander about as the man in the locked room can deliberate about whether or not to get up and walk out of the room. In this sense the man DOES have free will; for all the factors involved in free will are in order. He has the ability to deliberate albeit he does not know that the option to leave is really not open to him.

Me: So, according to Paul, one has freedom of will when (a) one can deliberate about going to Shangri-La, (b) one mistakenly thinks he can get to Shangri-La, and (c) in fact cannot ever go to that fabled place. Accordingly, one type of ‘Freedom-of-will,’ is simply the freedom to think about doing something which one cannot do but about which one is uninformed.
On these points, I’m with Shawley, namely, very confused. Paul claims a freedom-of-will when the subject has NO REAL CHOICE and lacks the freedom to act. In other words, if I have the delusion that I can run a marathon in one hour, can entertain the thought of of doing this (although it is physically impossible for me ever to do this), I surely don’t have the ‘free-will’ to run such a marathon! Could I correctly say that I am free to run such a marathon? As my boys would say, THAT DOESN’T COMPUTE, DAD!
This does not strike me as any kind of ‘freedom’ worth worrying about or worth having.

Shawley: Juan, I understand what you’re saying; but to me ‘free will’ argues that, despite genetics and environmental factors, humans have a measure of choices which they can freely consider. Freedom of action is a different beastie than freedom of thought. I realize this verges on existentialism, but that is not my point. If a god knows the future, or if I am genetically programmed in many ways, or I live in a constrained environment – I still have free will. You argue that a Roman Emperor had free will; but an uneducated Gaulish, or Jewish, peasant who was “tied” to the land – was essentially devoid of free will. No, I say his freedom of action was quite limited. It seems that you would see most people in history as mere puppets, manipulated by kings & genetics (etc.), with their minds devoid of choices. If I win the lottery do I suddenly have “more” free will in my mind? My answer is no.
Freedom of action does not equal free will.
For me, free will is a function of the mind (perhaps the brain) – not a measure of degrees of freedom of action.

Me: Shawley, I prefer to avoid the term “free will” because it suggests some mysterious faculty of mind which operates independently of genetic and environmental factors. I don’t think there is such a thing; and it seems to be a mistaken turn in discussions of problems of freedom and determinism.
I prefer to talk about freedom in relation to choice and actions that humans do. I don’t know what it means to talk about a ‘free will’ which does not result in some degree of freedom in deciding between alternative actions, and in sometimes being able to do what we desire to do, or what we judge to be in our best interest. This is the ‘freedom’ that interests me. (Maybe “autonomy” is a better term.) By a person having “free will” I understand a person with some ability to make choices and act according, i.e., a person having some autonomy.
As to the notion of ‘free will’ which is an aspect of mind or thought, I simply don’t know what that would be. I suspect there’s some confusion here. I have never thought of the ability to engage in free thought, free association and creative imagination as expressions of free will. Traditionally “will” referred to volition to act, and could be understood only in reference to overt action and choice (it seems to me).
I don’t know whether this answers the questions you raise, but it is a quick attempt to sort through some of these confusing concepts.

P.S. In reply to one of your questions: if you win the lottery you don’t thereby gain more “free will”; but you do gain more options, thus more freedom to do things you might not have previously been able to do. (I haven’t the least idea what “gaining more free will” means.)


Postscript: If having freedom of will is like having a soul, then scientific materialists would deny that human beings have freedom of will. For there is no faculty in the brain (mind) which can be identified as ‘will’ and which is free of all the conditions to which the brain and nervous system are subject. Just as the search for a soul occupying some part of the human constitution will not turn up any such ‘thing,’ so the search for that elusive faculty, the ‘free will,’ will not disclose anything. There is no such thing. Humans are physical, biological beings subject to all physical, chemical, genetic conditions to which all biological creatures are subject. Despite our aspirations, imaginings, and fondest wishes, we cannot float above our physical and biological limits. We are not free in this sense, as we are not spiritual beings in the sense that an eternal soul defining our spirituality could be identified and located somewhere intimately tied to our earthly being.

But if we deny free will in this sense, what have we denied about human existence? Have we denied that humans lack all freedom of action and choice? Have we denied the reality of ‘freedom’ in any significant sense of the word? Many of us argue that we have not denied real freedom. Any freedom worth having is still something we can achieve. Talk of being free to choose to ‘compete in a 10K run’ or merely go as a spectator still makes sense and represents real freedom of choice.

Question to the determinist: What am I unable to do (what capability have I lost?) if your position is correct, that I have no free will?

Knowledge and Consciousness, and other philosophical errors

I once argued that knowledge is not a state of consciousness before a group of philosophical acquaintances; but I must admit that my argument did not persuade many of my philosophical friends.

But it is fairly easy to show that there isn’t any significant relationship between consciousness and knowledge, in the sense that knowledge does not require any specific conscious state and any specific conscious state and that these mental states alone are not sufficient for knowledge.

Undoubtedly when we affirm the proposition that any person [e.g., Roberto] knows P (e.g. Roberto knows that Obama is the US President) we’re presupposing an intelligent individual who is minimally aware of his environment, e.g., we presuppose that Roberto is a conscious, mindful agent. But this does not imply that knowledge equals some state of consciousness or some mental act.

Here is my version of such an argument for the contrary thesis that
Knowledge does not imply and is not implied by any state of consciousness or any mental act.

Let ‘Roberto’ represent any person capable of knowledge:
The fact that Roberto experiences any specific state of consciousness [“C”] or performs any specific mental act [“M”] is neither a sufficient nor a necessary condition for correctly ascribing some knowledge to Roberto [e.g., Roberto knows that Alaska is the biggest state in the union or Roberto knows how to ride a bicycle].

Affirm that
Specific state of consciousness not sufficient for knowledge:

Neither C nor M is sufficient for the truth of ‘Roberto knows P’ (alternatively, the truth of ‘Roberto knows how to S’);
because whenever we correctly ascribe knowledge to Roberto we implicitly affirm that an objective state of affairs holds or that an objective event has taken place.

(E.G. Robert knows that GWB is US president in 2007 requires that in fact GWB is US president in 2007.)

[Examples relating to ‘know how’ are easy. Knowing how to ride a bicycle requires that in fact one can do that, namely, ride a bike.]

In short, being in a particular state of mind is not sufficient for knowing something. This is true regardless of how extra-ordinary or spectacular that state of consciousness might be.

Affirm that
Specific state of consciousness not necessary for knowledge:

• ‘Roberto knows P’ can be true when Roberto does not experience any state of consciousness or perform a mental act (specific to his knowing P). [E.G., Two minutes ago Roberto knew that María is his great-grandmother, but he was not thinking about that (two minutes ago) and had not thought about it for years.]

• ‘Roberto knows how to S’ when Roberto can demonstrate the ability to do S. [This will be an overt, public act, not a state of consciousness or mental act. In our example above, riding a bike.]

• Many (most?) cases of ‘knowing that’ can be reduced to cases of ‘knowing how’.

• It is at least arguable that most cases of ‘knowing that’ are verifiable only in terms of the subject’s disposition or ability to perform some overt act.

Caveat: There may be a sub-class [a residue] of cases in which knowledge intimately involves a special state of consciousness or special experience. Examples could be cases in which we talk of knowledge by acquaintance, i. e., only someone who has done such & such can know what it is like to do such & such. For example, only someone who has loved and lost, knows what a painful experience that is!
[Other examples are easy to find. E.g., Only someone who has climbed Everest knows what that experience really is like. Only soldiers who have been in combat know what they’re talking about when combat experience is the subject.]

More examples to buttress my case:
First, knowledge that ordinarily we know but do not hold in active consciousness:
Raul (just about anyone) knows that he has maternal grandparents; ..the earth existed 200 years ago; that he has a brain inside his skull;
..that if Henry’s head is cut off, Henry will die; that if Jenny’s arm is cut off, it won’t grow again;
..that automobiles don’t grow out of the earth (like plants);
.. that cats don’t grow on trees.

I know (but likely you don’t) that Ojo Feliz, NM has an abandoned morada.
I know what a morada is (related to the Penitente cult).

We knew in 1950 that nobody (from earth) had been on the moon. In 1970 we knew the contrary. We knew in August of 2001 that WTC twin towers were the tallest buildings in NYC. But in 2002 we knew that the Empire State bldg was the tallest building in NYC.
[What I know relates to what the facts are, relates to how the world is; and can be contingent on changing events.]

You might think that the following examples involve specific mental content or state of consciousness:
I know what ‘A <--> B’ signifies. He knows what R=MC2 signifies.
He knows that sub-atomic particles behave like waves and like individual particles!
[However, it can certainly be true that I know that those propositions are true, but had not thought about them for years. I had not thought about them recently; but if asked, I could reply with a statement (or demonstration) of the relevant knowledge.]

Second, a few examples of ‘know how’ which surely support my case.

He knows how to perform a successful retinal surgery.

He knows the way to Kansas City. He knows how to pitch to Mickey Mantle. He knows how to run a marathon. He knows the best route to the summit of Mt. Everest, meaning he knows how to take the best route.

He knows how the theory of structured programming works in program coding.
He knows how to code, test, and implement a batch program.

[He knows theory, but lacks the practical knowledge (experience)]
He has completed the required courses and attained the degrees and certification, but he lacks the experience of applying all that theory in the real world of data processing.

Third, other ‘knowing’ situations that might lead you to think that knowledge is equivalent to some mental state or state of consciousness:

Secret: I know where the scrolls are, but I don’t tell anyone.
I know who killed OJ’s wife and Eric Goldman, but I keep it to myself.
I know how to solve the puzzle, but I never show anyone.

But even in these cases it is not clear that the knowledge at issue is identical to a state of consciousness. For in each case, there is a crucial connection to the something (an object, an act) in world apart from the subject’s mental state.

Related Reflections and observations:

Admittedly these are affirmed by someone impressed by a Rylean, Wittgensteinian approach to problems of mind and knowledge.

Knowing other person’s mind: We learn about other ‘minds’ by observing other person’s behavior, expression, capabilities, etc. In short, what other people say (orally, in writing) and do (relevant intelligent behavior) tell us much about their ‘minds.’ Just like the sciences, philosophies, literature, art, engineering feats, architecture, political and economic institutions of a society reveal an advanced culture, so the behavior and creativity of a person reveals that person’s mind, both the intellectual and creative ‘mind.’

We learn what a person knows by observing that person’s behavior and disposition to behave in specific ways. When that person displays particular ‘know-how’, skills, dispositions, and capabilities, we have reason for ascribing knowledge to him. We don’t have to inquire as to any specific state of consciousness or any specific mental act taking place ‘behind the scenes.” [See argument above.]

Although people can say things in sotto voce and keep secrets they never reveal to others, we do not have to become mystified over what happens in other peoples’ heads, or in some mysterious, ghostly place called “the mind.”

Despite the brilliant work of Rene Descartes, Immanuel Kant, and Edmund Husserl and arguments to the contrary, the fact remains that we do not learn much (anything?) about other persons’ minds by meditating on our subjective consciousness and attempting to describe the ‘structures’ of consciousness. We must turn our attention to the world, and to social and natural phenomena.

We commit the ‘Category Mistake’ when we speak of ‘the mind’ as an entity in the same category as our body and other material things, but distinct from our body and hidden to all but the immediate subjective consciousness. The mind is not an entity hidden behind the scenes, so to speak. When we refer to a person’s mind we are simply referring to the mindful behavior of that individual, one who is capable of intelligent behavior and aware of his environment.

None of this should be understood as denying that people often keep what they’re thinking and what they know to themselves. We cannot always learn what another person thinks or knows. People are capable of keeping secrets from the rest of us. People are capable of pretense, deception, and great acting, dissimulating what they really don’t feel or think.
Actors, salesmen, and politicians (among many others) often deceive us concerning what they really think and feel. We could say that we cannot always decipher their ‘minds.’ But this is the exception. Much of our culture and way-of-life rests on the ability to ‘read’ each other’s minds quite well.

Recommended reading for someone interested in this approach to problems of knowledge and philosophy of mind:

The Concept of Mind, by Gilbert Ryle

Philosophical Investigations, Ludwig Wittgenstein

Philosophy and The Mirror of Nature, by Richard Rorty

The Mind’s I, collection of essays edited by Daniel Dennett and Douglas Hofstadter

Discovering The Mind, by Walter Kaufmann

The Theory of Knowledge, by D.W. Hamlyn

Consciousness Explained, by Daniel Dennett

On Certainty, by Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Remarks About Psychology and Philosophy (Uneasy Siblings)

Historically in Western Philosophy, Psychology was part of philosophy until the 19th century when it became a separate science.

Is Psychology a sibling of Philosophy? Surely in the past they were close siblings, members of the same family. After the 19th century the relationship becomes more problematic.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, many Western philosophers did pioneering work in areas that later came to be known as “psychology.” Eventually psychological inquiry and research became separate sciences, the study and research into the mind. In short, psychology became identified as the science of mind insofar as its function is to analyze and explain mental processes: our thoughts, experiences, sensations, feelings, perceptions, imaginations, creativity, dreams and so on. It is mostly an empirical and experimental science; although the field of psychology does include the more theoretical Freudian psychology and the more speculative Jungian psychology.

But philosophical work was not always distinct, and even today is not wholly distinct, from psychological considerations. It may be that some forms of philosophy can never break away completely from psychological issues.

Baruch Spinoza’s great work, Ethics, includes many observations and insights about our reasoning processes and emotions. The early emphasis on epistemological questions by such thinkers as Rene Descartes, John Locke, David Hume, and Immanuel Kant includes much observations and statements about mental processes connected with knowing and belief; but in these writings there tends to be a mixing of psychological statements (process of knowing) with conceptual philosophy.

In our critiques of these works in epistemology we try to separate the philosophical theme (logic, conceptual and propositional evaluation) from the psychological aspect (causes of belief, mental process underlying perception). But in large part the problem remains, especially in such areas of philosophy of mind, of keeping philosophical work free of psychology altogether.

However, we should not assume that in all cases these must be kept separate, as some work in philosophy surely requires consideration of the psychological sciences.

As the sciences of physics, biology, astronomy and neurology broke with philosophy at earlier stages, empirical, descriptive psychology eventually broke away from philosophy. Scientific work that seeks to understand and explain the workings of the brain and the neurological processes which underlie thought and experience (viz., psychology) is different from philosophical inquiry into mind, consciousness, knowledge and experiences.

Edmund Husserl, the founder of phenomenology, takes great pains to keep his philosophy separate from empirical psychology. But it is not clear that his analysis (or other analyses) of the phenomenology of different experiences remains something clearly distinct from psychology.

Even today the student will likely be surprised by the number of psychological insights that Spinoza offers in this great work, Ethics, back in the 17th century and similar psychological observations by Friedrich Nietzsche in the 19th century.

William James, the great American pragmatist, includes much psychology in his philosophy. He has much to say about the stream of consciousness and special experiences, such as religious experiences.

Philosophy of mind: There’s a sense in which the mind is a psychological construct; there’s another sense in which it is not. “My mind is such and such” can be restated as “my thinking is such and such.” Sometimes it is the psychology behind my thinking that is the issue; but other times we’re interested in what could be called the conceptual-propositional issues; and still other times we might be more interested in the literary-artistic expression of ideas, values, and perspectives. (In this latter connection, see Walter Kaufmann’s book, Discovering The Mind.)

In Epistemology we’re concerned with the concept of knowledge; but our primary interest is not one of describing the psychology of knowing. Our interest is not in the process by which we come to know something, but in the clarification of concepts associated with knowledge and belief; and in the logic of propositions related to knowledge. Included among the philosophers who engage in the philosophy of knowledge are Bertrand Russell, D.W. Hamlyn, and Richard Rorty.

In the area of academic philosophy, besides the large field of epistemology, we have philosophy of mind, theory of consciousness, philosophy of language, Cartesian Idealism, and the free will issue. Ordinarily these are not seen as forms of psychological inquiry. They are more directed to conceptual and propositional issues. Included among the philosophers who engage in work on knowledge, language, and mind in this vein are Ludwig Wittgenstein, Gilbert Ryle, D.W. Hamlyn, John Austin, and Daniel Dennett

But psychology is very much a part of those philosophical studies of special experience, such as the religious experience, the mystical experience, and even moral experience. A good representative of this approach is the great American pragmatist, William James. Much of his work in philosophy does not stray too far from his psychological interests.

Some aspects of philosophy are concerned with the nature of human thought. This interest is distinct from psychological study, description and theory. But to be adequate and credible it needs to take into account the work of psychologists and the cognitive scientists.

The subject of human thought is a big topic which can be approached from different directions. One of these is philosophy; another is psychology and the cognitive sciences. Still others are literary art, the fine arts, and history.


How much of philosophy is concerned with the psychological well-being of the individual?

Another way of considering the interaction of psychology and philosophy is at the personal level when the person considers his philosophical reflections and meditation to bring about (or bring closer) some degree of psychic harmony. The idea here is that in some sense philosophy can be therapeutic.

To the extent that philosophical work and thought contribute to a person’s sense of well-being and even bring about some degree of fulfillment, one could argue that philosophy is a form of therapy. (?)

If the unexamined life is not worth living (Socrates), then it may follow that the examined life (the “philosophical life”) is worth living. This could be seen as suggesting that philosophical thought results in a form of personal fulfillment and good psychological health.

Contrary to this we have the view (mostly the prevailing view) that philosophy is an intellectual discipline which has little or nothing to do with anyone’s striving to achieve some form of personal, psychic fulfillment. Add to this the fact that most people who work in philosophy (e.g. academic philosophers or professors of philosophy) are not especially noteworthy for lives of psychic well-being. In this regard, think of people like Blaise Pascal, S. Kierkegaard, F. Nietzsche and Ludwig Wittgenstein. How psychologically healthy and well balanced were they? They were emotionally and mentally tormented, and won’t be mentioned much as models of psychic calm and well-being.

Some philosophers are driven to engage in philosophy, much like artists, poets, and composers are driven to do their creative work. Here we have a form of psychological compulsion that does not seem to be a form of therapy.

Suppose I ask about Spinoza’s thought with regard to moral obligation; how does he defend the thesis that morality and rationality are closely intertwined? As a student of philosophy, my interests could be strictly philosophical interests. I want to know how he develops and defends his philosophical thesis. On the other hand, I could be curious about the causes of Spinoza’s thinking; or maybe interested in possible motives that he might have had for adopting his particular philosophy. What events in his childhood or family life led him to embrace the values of rationality and the ideals of the geometric method? In this latter case, I would be proceeding as an amateur, folk psychologist.

There are different ways of trying to understand the thought of a person, e.g. a writer or a philosopher. We take one way when we ask about the causes and motivations behind the person’s ideas; i.e., we ask about the psychological ‘workings.’ Another way is to do philosophical criticism and evaluation of the person’s ideas. But the two (psychology and philosophy) can be combined in a single study.


The student as a psychologist: Here we have a person’s attempt to get clear about his/her thoughts and values; add to this a person’s attempt to be honest about one’s motivations. People used to say back in the 1960s era: I’m just trying to get my “head straight.”

Suppose that a psychologist can tell me about the causes, the mental processes, and hidden motives that underlie my thinking and behavior. He might say that in order to truly understand what I am about I must have some understanding of these “psychological” things; i.e., I must acknowledge and expose them. If I were to accept his advice and try to do those things, would I be acting in accordance with the Socratic maxim to “know thyself”?

The professional is concerned with empirical, descriptive psychology and with research into neurological and psychological processes. But we, the amateurs, are primarily indulging a form of folk psychology: Trying to say what I think about my own thinking. Or trying to deal better with my psychic life.

Sometimes I apply this ‘folk psychology’ to myself (I try to figure out what I’m about) or to others (I try to understand their motives for saying such and such or doing so and so.)

On a more practical level, we can imagine someone asking: “What do I really want in life? How do I get there?” Can philosophy help us here? Maybe not, but then again think of two of our great figures in Western Philosophy, Socrates and Spinoza, who are often cited as models of psychological harmony and wisdom.

Aren’t we all psychologists to some degree? Yes, to some degree we are insofar as we are awake, alert, conscientious, and honestly engage in self-examination. This does not need to be separated from our work in philosophy.

Remarks on Philosophy and Spirituality

What is the challenge of Critical Philosophy?

Among other things, critical philosophy challenges us to become radical in our thinking, i.e., try to get to the “roots” of things; that we work to examine things, the world and yourself. Recall Socrates’ dictum: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” The challenge of critical philosophy is that we be prepared to challenge our ideas, beliefs, and values in a Socratic way.

Critical philosophy requests that we scrutinize the standard, conventional answers (alleged answers) that are given to important questions regarding human existence, values and reality.

Critical philosophy asks that we become skeptical about society’s “sacred cows”; and even become iconoclastic regarding many of society’s false assumptions and hollow values.

Critical philosophy asks that we make use of creative imagination, tempered by critical reason, to develop a better “story” of human reality than the ones generally given.

What does religion ask?

Religion asks that you have faith. that you accept God “in your heart,” that you recognize the significance of certain moving (transforming) experiences.

A religion of salvation, such as Christianity, asks that you do what is necessary to gain eternal salvation.

Some religions ask that you forsake things of this world (wealth, pleasure, glory, power) for a higher spiritual order. Religions offer ways of thinking and acting which purportedly will improve your status in the spiritual realm. Accordingly, religions advance certain doctrines regarding the nature of human reality and the higher spiritual realm, doctrines which must be accepted by all members of the group. (With some salvation type religions, adherents must accept the official doctrine on pain of eternal suffering should their actions and beliefs not be satisfactory.)

A large part of the message of the New Testament is that you must have the right faith in order to achieve salvation. Everything else is secondary.

At times I’m inclined to speak in terms of neat categories like the preceding one between philosophy and religion. How much of it holds true? How much does it mislead?

Tavio Tellez and kindred spirits (romantics, for the most part) have seen philosophy an intellectual, moral and spiritual enterprise (as a life-long project). Can we really make much sense of this? Let’s try.

First, we have the familiar idea (expressed above) that philosophy is an intellectual, rational project. Philosophers (and associates in the field) work at thinking things through to their logical ends; they sort things out, work to clarify problems and issues, and, in some cases, reconstruct things.

Some of this is the work of criticism and analysis, and resembles clean-up or maintenance work. Philosophers sort things out in order to identify and expose falsehoods. In a romantic vein we could say that they sweep away nonsense and folly in order to give us an uncluttered road to understanding and truth.

Typically the work of philosophy is a social enterprise. The worker in the field must take into account the work that other philosophers have done and are doing. Generally philosophers build on what others have done and are doing; even the errors that occur can be instructive, even illuminating, and should not be ignored.

Analysis, rational argument and creative imagination play leading roles. The working philosopher strives to clarify and define the parameters of our knowledge and well-grounded beliefs, and to construct disciplined, imaginative theories where these may be helpful.

In short, the philosopher works to clarify matters and to get at the rationally, grounded truth about things.

Alternatively, a practicing philosopher can also be actively involved in what we can loosely call the moral-spiritual area. This is the area in which people aim to live the good life and achieve wisdom. Here the advocacy of particular values, normative judgment and value-guided action play primary roles. The philosopher attempts to inculcate certain attitudes, habits of thought and action in others. Some of the questions that are posed: What can we do to help bring about a good society (good government)? What can I do to realize a good character, and help others do the same? Given that we desire to realize a just, harmonious, and beneficent world, what actions, programs and policies will enable us to attain that end? How do I find meaning and significance in my existence?

Some philosophers work to construct a picture of human reality in relation to the rest of nature and the cosmos; according to this picture human existence takes on special meaning and significance.

Observations on “spirituality”

In some cases, when we find significance and value in things other than material wealth, power, pleasure and social prestige, we see this as expressing our spirituality. Often people associate spirituality with conventional religious faith; but some forms of spirituality are not religious in the conventional sense of the term “religious.”

[Recall the question from the Gospel: How do you profit, if you win the world, but lose your soul?]

Spirituality is also often associated with moral and ethical values, with an abiding concern for other people’s rights and needs; some might state this as having a certain type of moral consciousness. Others might state things in terms of a life dedicated to realizing the morally good life; and a few will talk about a life of high mindedness.

Spirituality can also associate with a creativity, aesthetic values and artistic expression.

[It may be that spirituality is something you experience and express, not something you talk about and analyze.]

Suppose that you perceive the world spiritually without being a churchman or without submitting to the will of religious authority. You will look at the world, at our life and your fellow human beings in particular ways. Your attitude will be one that places certain values on things.

Do we state it this way: The world has a spiritual dimension?

A spiritual person might say, “My interactions with people are tempered by certain moral, philosophical aspects. The common, temporal, material concerns that drive most people are not my primary motives.”

Such a person is attuned to something else, something higher. Human existence is no longer a mere material, animal existence, but now seen to have essential features beyond physical, biological properties.

Others might say: “We’re not satisfied with merely playing the game well: having many friends, earning great wealth, attaining power and honor. We see life as having certain moral value and significance; we take our existence to be a process of soul development and evolution of the spirit.”

[Sounds good, but what does it really mean?]

More Questions to ponder:

The worldly skeptic: In real terms, how important is it that you see things this way (spiritually)? For surely we know the nature of human existence; surely when we are honest with ourselves and with each other, we must admit that there is no spiritual, moral dimension to human existence. Like all higher animals in the evolutionary scheme, humans are in a constant state of competition and struggle for power. All this talk about “the spiritual, moral dimension of human reality” is simply a way of coloring human existence, a way of looking at our reality that we have forgotten is merely a way of looking at our reality.

(It is just a way of talking about things that interests us!)

Do we really deceive ourselves when we speak of morality and spirituality? Sometimes we’re sure that an existence devoid of the spiritual dimension is an empty, meaningless existence; it would be as if human beings were mere things, objects. We have aspirations, needs and ideals which cannot be accounted for in animal, materialistic terms.

The skeptic continues: “Perhaps it’s simply that you’re not aware of the naturalistic explanation for such things. Certainly high aspirations, oceanic feelings, and moral sensibilities can be explained in natural, material terms.”


But you’re not completely convinced, are you? You cannot ignore the feeling or suggestion that human reality connects with a transcendent reality and has much higher value than anything that arises from mere, subjective feelings and aspirations.

Could it be simply a matter of conditioning? It may be simply that we have learned look at human existence only in this way. We think that we have gotten hold of a deep truth concerning human existence; but most likely we simply hold a particular perception of human reality, one which is ingrained in our psyche by cultural and religious conditioning.


Some of Wittgenstein’s style might help here: We have a particular picture of human beings; or shall we say, “We have a particular picture of the world inhabited by human beings.” Working with this picture, we say such things as: “There is a spiritual dimension to human existence. Most wise and morally sensible people recognize this spiritual realm.”

Religions stake their claim to this spiritual dimension and provide doctrines that purport to explain our existence and moral beliefs in terms of this realm.

Unfortunately, many advocates of such religions have been too anxious to impose their particular versions of the moral-spiritual “realm” on the rest of us (who may not wish to embrace such a view). Too often they have insisted on dogmas that conflict with science and logic, giving the impression that the spiritual view demands irrationality and ignorance.

Without doubt, organized religions have too frequently been oppressive and clumsy in their handling of the spiritual-moral phenomenon. There is a long, bloody history of the religious persecution of nonbelievers and outsiders: Jews, heretics, skeptics, free-thinkers, mystics, “witches”, rationalists, and so on. Organized religions have all too often given a bad name to the spiritual-moral phenomenon.

In fairness we should note that religions sometimes work well and provide many persons with the means for full expression of the spiritual-moral experience.
Who are the Agents in History?

Does it make sense to ask whether the actions of religion in history have resulted in more benefit than injury?

Much of what has occurred in the history of organized religions has been more about power (the need to achieve and consolidate power) than about spirituality and higher moral values. We can venture that as many evil things have been done in the name of God as good things (the skeptic would say “more evil than good in the name of God”).

Does religion act in the world? Or do only people, religious or otherwise, act in the world?

We often speak as if abstractions, e.g. religion, philosophy, science, act in the world and bring about consequences. But this is just a way of talking, a very misleading way.

More on this “spirituality” issue:

Let’s get back to the earlier notion of a spiritual dimension to human existence.

Are we really dealing with anything besides delusions and self-deception? Some of us might suspect that there is nothing “out there” but reflections of our own fears, ideals and aspirations. In a truly objective, measurable sense, there probably is nothing there.

Must we then concede that all this talk of the “spiritual dimension” of human reality is empty, meaningless talk?

We are mere products of natural evolution on a small planet reaching for an elusive spiritual significance. Maybe this is all we have.

The evidence that we possess indicates that our human reality is bounded by our natural powers, which we exercise in a natural and social environment. The betting odds are that God and the supernatural realm are nothing but imaginative phenomena projected by the human psyche (call it the “collective and historical human psyche” if you like).


People seek consolation and significance wherever they can. With the great amount of suffering and the apparent lack of meaning in that suffering, who can blame them for turning to religion? Certainly we know that people can do much worse than practicing some form of religious faith and worship.

But the religious spirit need not align us with the forces of stupidity, ignorance and superstition.


“The word of God?” Surely this is not some body of writings designated as the “Holy Word” by some particular tribe or culture. Instead, let’s propose as the “word of God” the evolution of life, consciousness, and intelligence on this small planet, earth. Earth, a small planet in the solar system, itself a mere speck in the Milky Way Galaxy, one of billions of galaxies in the known universe.

Is there any clear evidence or signs that a supernatural intelligence or Being plays a part in the reality we experience? If so, what might the evidence be?

Surely not the existence of a narrow, stultifying religious and theological tradition with its “holy scriptures,” but more likely such reality as the evolution and development of intelligent life, the development of culture, arts and the sciences, moral sensibility, beauty (both natural and created), music, poetry. The human mind in its capacity for mathematics, logic, and science, along with its highly developed, disciplined, creative imagination science shows a spark of divinity.


Surely a divine being would personify the best and highest in humanity. Yes, such a Being would be light years beyond the highest being humanity can imagine. For this reason, the gods of earlier, less developed cultures must be rejected.

It would be a primitive, unworthy ‘god’, not the universal Being, who would say: “I shall save only those among you (my creatures) who avow certain beliefs, bow to certain officials, embrace certain doctrines and perform certain rituals. All others are condemned to eternal suffering.”

The ideas of hell, Satan, demons and the damnation of souls to eternal agony in hell are such primitive, unenlightened notions. How can intelligent, sensitive people associate such low ideas with that which is godly?

The higher beings in the cosmos would not demean themselves by associating with such lowly, primitive-human ideas.

But isn’t all this too speculative and general?

“No! No!” the man said, “None of this rings true.”

So, then, why do we say it?

At the time it seemed to be the right thing to say. Later I honestly couldn’t say what I could have been thinking. Surely I couldn’t have thought carefully as I wrote; for what I wrote was romantic nonsense at best.