Monthly Archives: July 2010

Really, Mr. Blaise Pascal, YOU CAN’T BE SERIOUS!

(Somewhat of a “tongue-in-cheek” reply to Blaise Pascal’s Wager)

The Christian philosopher, Blaise Pascal (1623-1662 ), argued that rational prudence dictated that everyone should believe in God’s existence, even if we lacked a personal faith in God. According to Pascal, the person who opts to believe has nothing to lose, should it turn out there is no God, and everything to gain, should God exist. On the other hand, the person who chooses to disbelieve has nothing to gain, should God not exist, and everything to lose, should God exist. In simple terms, believe and you risk nothing but stand to gain everything; disbelieve and you risk everything and stand to gain nothing.

Shouldn’t all agree, then, that any rational person would certainly opt to belief in God’s existence? Pascal says the answer was obvious. This has been called “Pascal’s Wager.”

A number of critics have shown that there are a number of problems with Pascal’s argument, and I will not rehash all the good responses that have been given. The main one is simply that nobody, including respected theologians, knows what fate awaits any human in the afterlife, supposing it even makes rational sense to speak of the ‘afterlife.’ Pascal simply relied on what are very questionable points of Christian doctrine. For now, I simply will focus attention Pascal’s key assumptions. Pascal assumes that God will punish non-believers, solely for their lack of belief, and reward believers, solely for their belief in his existence. These are philosophically untenable claims which ignore altogether the moral aspect of religious life.

The God of Pascal’s Christian faith is certainly considered to be an infinitely wise deity. Let us ask: How would an infinitely wise deity treat those human creatures that did not believe in him? Would he punish them by eternal damnation simply for their lack of belief, as many Christians claim?

First, this infinitely wise deity remains hidden from the human world, never giving any clear evidence of his existence. After having remained hidden and mysterious, he allegedly condemns all non-believers, among them the empirically-minded, rational humans who operate on the basis of evidence available to them. These humans conclude quite reasonably that there are no grounds for affirming that a supernatural deity exists. On the contrary, the deity allegedly rewards all the credulous, fantasy-minded humans who proclaim that he does exist. Does this sound like the behavior of an infinitely wise being?

Consider our attitude to a parent who treats his children in an analogous way. An absentee father who was never present, never let his children know where he might be, and never supported his children, but later appeared and punished those children who stopped believing in him, while rewarding the credulous ones who never stopped believing despite all evidence to the contrary. Would anyone hold that such a parent was wise and good? Yet, Pascal’s wager can be seen as attributing analogous behavior to the deity, a being who is perfectly good and infinitely wise.

Many of us question whether an infinitely wise being would condemn non-believers, as Pascal and some Christians claim. Wouldn’t an infinitely wise being easily understand why some humans would withhold belief in him? After all, as their creator, he would know that these creatures were given brains, the capability to question things and the inclination to seek evidence for doubtful claims. It would be the opposite of wisdom to punish these creatures for using the faculties that they were given, and to reward those lazy creatures who make no use of their faculties. Doesn’t it make rational sense to conjecture that an infinitely wise deity might hold the prudent believer in contempt for being so credulous?

When we play this theologically speculative game, we have as much reason for inferring contempt for the pious believer as Mr. Pascal had for his assumption that believers would be rewarded. Yes, I know this is part of accepted Christian doctrine. However, looking at all this from a philosophically rational perspective, we can say that Pascal’s assumptions are simply false and untenable.

My guess is that an infinitely wise being might even prefer the skeptics and the agnostics. They are certainly more interesting and entertaining company than pious, credulous folk, who don’t have much to say beyond repetitious “hosannas to the Lord.” An infinitely wise being might prefer someone who can give him a good argument or a good game of chess, over some religious type who simply sings his praises. Let’s not bore the deity; after all, eternity is a long time!

Robert Richert: A Critique of Religious Faith

Most Americans believe that religious faith is one of the noblest of human virtues. Indeed, many people claim that religious faith is the cornerstone of their spiritual well being. Following are three definitions of faith from my Webster’s dictionary: “Belief and trust in and loyalty to God”, “Something that is believed with strong conviction,” and “Firm belief in something for which there is no proof”.

Analysis and criticism of religious faith is a difficult task because of the ambiguity of the word’s usage, the value accorded it in our society, and the passion that it arouses. However, I think this is a task in need of doing and bringing to the public’s attention.

One problem I have encountered repeatedly is that people often use different meanings of the word ‘Faith’ within the same context. For example, religious believers often begin a discussion by saying that they believe because of faith. However, when pressed, they shift more emphasis toward their strong convictions about their beliefs, as if these are one in the same. Thus, when a skeptic criticizes faith as a justification for belief, it often becomes construed as a personal attack upon the believer’s character. This shift of emphasis often places the critic rather than the believer in an uncomfortable position. Therefore, skeptics should demand clarification at the outset and illuminate the following important distinction: Believing on the basis of faith is not the same thing as having strong feelings about the belief. The former is an argument and the latter is an expression of passion. Conservative Muslims are as committed to and passionate about the truth of their beliefs as are Evangelical Christians. Obviously, one’s strength of conviction and expression of passion is not in any way a barometer as to the truth of a belief.

A common claim is that everyone, even atheists, believes in ‘something’ based upon faith. Here are some typical examples that I have heard from religious believers: When we stop at a red light at an unfamiliar intersection, we have ‘faith’ that the light will turn green. We have faith that the sun will rise tomorrow, or that our car will start in the morning. The argument is made that if everyone believes in some things based upon faith, religious faith is justified. However, according to the Bible (Hebrews11:1), “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen.” Traditionally, Theologians have interpreted the latter phrase to mean that the existence of God cannot be proven by the ordinary rules of evidence and experience, and/or that evidence for his existence is of a mysterious nature. They argue that faith is a special way of knowing distinct from mere reason and everyday experience. However, the word ‘faith’ used in the mundane examples above is more accurately defined as, “confidence gained through experience in the routine of daily life.” This is not religious faith! In fact, the use of the word faith in the above examples stands in direct contradiction to traditional biblical and theological interpretations.

Along with its ambiguous usage, another problem is that there are varying degrees of faith. For example, knowing the possibility of an accident, I might nonetheless maintain a small degree of faith that I will reach my destination safely and decide to drive on the freeway. This is not the same thing as believing I will be safe based totally on faith. It is a matter of weighing probabilities. To some, faith may play a small part in every day decision making processes, to others none at all. It depends upon how one evaluates such situations. In any case, to passionately believe in God on the sole basis of religious or blind faith is not at all like having a small degree of faith in a decision based primarily on evidence or experience.

Many believers say that their faith is not grounded in a vacuum; they have trenchant personal experiences confirming the truth of their faith. No doubt that people have vivid, even life changing religious experiences. However it is reasonable to question their interpretation and whether they connect to something beyond the individual mind. People with strong religious convictions tend to construe their religious experiences through the rose colored glasses of entrenched beliefs. For example, the Virgin Mary appears frequently in Catholic miracle stories and visions, but almost never in Protestant versions. Almost all of the world’s leading religions contain stories of powerful mind altering personal experiences, and they usually reinforce the existing belief system or a current religious trend. Often, the theological message within one religious experience stands in contradiction to those within other religions. All of this strongly suggests that such occurrences, emotionally moving as they may be, are subjective in nature. In any case, if people claim that these events are evidence that their beliefs are true, they are not basing them solely upon faith.

We all have heard the expression that, “Faith moves mountains.” I usually counter this statement by saying, “Yes, but sometimes people motivated by strong faith, move those mountains on top of people of different faiths!” We have all heard stories about people motivated by faith accomplishing wonderful things such as building hospitals and serving the poor. However, faith has an ugly dark side. I can’t think of a more timely and poignant example than the September 11th terrorist attacks. The perpetrators, devout Muslims, believed that Allah would reward them in the afterlife. Most certainly, they were motivated by strong religious faith! It should seem crystal clear after 9-11 that having strong religious convictions is no guarantee for good works and ethical conduct. Yes, sometimes faith works for the good, but sometimes it works for the bad. Yet, this dark side is seldom acknowledged in our society. Many religious people are reluctant to attribute evil acts to strong religious faith. They offer presumptive and arrogant rationalizations like; the terrorists strayed from their ‘true’ faith, or they don’t believe in the ‘correct’ religion in the first place. Not only do our three major faiths have significant doctrinal differences, each contains many denominations and scriptural interpretations. Who is to say which, if any are correct, and on what basis? I sincerely doubt that any atheist could be convinced to fly a jetliner into a building because of potential God given rewards in a heavenly afterlife!

Imagine a criminal defendant saying to the jury, “I don’t have an alibi and no evidence to support my claim to innocence. Just have faith that I didn’t do the crime.” Most people would take this comment with a grain of salt! Imagine a scientist claiming that although he has no evidence for his hypothesis, it is true and must be taken purely on faith. This scientist would be labeled a crackpot. Would a wise consumer buy a used car based solely on his faith in a total stranger’s testimony that the car is in perfect condition? No! Religion is the only major aspect of our culture in which faith is not just acceptable but heralded as virtuous. Although it may be claimed that religious faith is distinguishable from the other forms of faith in the examples above, I don’t see any substantive difference, only a double standard. The elevation of religious faith to a high virtue strikes me as an example of special pleading. If faith submitted as evidence or justification for belief isn’t acceptable in our courts, in science, or when purchasing a car, it shouldn’t be acceptable as a basis for believing in religion.

How can one have evidence for, “…things unseen,” meaning things beyond or above reason, experience and scientific knowledge? By what process does one weigh the truth of one representative religious faith against another that is different? If faith is a personal, intuitive process, why should we believe that this intuition is tapping into anything that is objectively true? I have not heard any cogent responses to these questions. Inadvertently, the first phrase of the biblical definition, “Faith is the substance of things hoped for…” may provide an answer. It strongly suggests that faith is based upon wishful thinking. Thus, faith isn’t about discovering truth, it’s really a form of religious hedonism: People of faith believe what they desire to believe is true; they believe because it makes them feel good, even in the absence of supporting evidence or despite contrary evidence. Thus, elevating religious faith to a noble virtue provides the socially protective cloak that enables an emotional justification for the rationally unjustifiable. I find this deception reprehensible, not to mention immoral! As for claims about religious faith leading to truth, skeptics must demand more than strong convictions, passionately felt personal experiences and wishful thinking. Skeptics need solid evidence derived independently of personal bias.

For all of the reasons above, I think that religious faith is not a pathway to knowledge. It is a subjective experience deeply rooted by human emotional wants and needs. As a means to truth, it is not just irrational, but anti-rational. Throughout history, religious thinkers have defended faith by attacking human reason. Martin Luther said repeatedly that reason was the enemy of faith. Even in our scientific age today, many religious thinkers argue that human reason is limited and inadequate, and that faith is superior. When believers elevate religious faith to high virtue and use the word ambiguously, whether intended or not, they are attempting to insulate themselves from the burden of proof. I think that all beliefs we deem important and hold with strong convictions should be based upon solid, reliable evidence. To the contrary, Religious faith is glorified ignorance masquerading as truth.

Religious faith should not be heralded as a noble quality or as a hallmark of human virtue in any educated society.

by Robert Richert

Was the ‘Jesus’ of the New Testament a historical person?

Did the ‘Jesus’ described in the New Testament really exist as a flesh-and-blood person, walking the hills of Galilee, teaching, preaching, healing, and working miracles in Palestine?

I don’t think so.

Here is a summary of my reasons, gotten from a study of a variety of popular and scholarly writings on the subject. Of course, there’s much more to be said.

1) References in the New Testament were written long after the events described and are very problematic. In many instances they’re not consistent with each other and not consistent with known historical facts. For example, the ‘Jesus’ of the Synoptics is very different from ‘Jesus’ of the fourth Gospel (John) and from the ‘Jesus’ of Pauline writings. There is much evidence to suggest the various accounts of ‘Jesus’ were written to serve doctrinal purposes, not as historical accounts of an actual person.

2) References in Jewish writings of the time and those referring to the time of ‘Jesus’ are sketchy and very inconclusive, and do not even make a clear connection to the Jesus of the Gospels. The oldest surviving documents of the time —the Dead Sea Scrolls— do not even mention ‘Jesus’ or any of the episodes described in the Gospels.

3) There are virtually no independent, secular references to the man Jesus, certainly none which can be used as clear evidence that he did exist. References in the writings of Josephus are problematic, probably later interpolations. Those by Tacitus are even more doubtful. The best one can do is point out that other figures in the Jesus stories appear to be historical individuals; e.g. John the Baptist, Pontius Pilate, and maybe Peter and James the Righteous (the brother?).

4) Many aspects of the Jesus story are clearly the stuff of myth and legend, e.g. Paul’s version of the Christ who died to redeem mankind; and the ‘Jesus’ of the fourth Gospel (John) where he is identified with the spiritual Logos, a Greek concept.

5) Therefore, most probably the composite ‘Jesus’ of the synoptic Gospels, of the Gospel John and of Paul’s writings did not really exist. The ‘Jesus’ of the New Testament is more likely the product of developing Christian doctrine of the late 1st and 2nd centuries.

Corollary: If there is a historical basis for the figure of ‘Jesus,’ he is likely a Jewish preacher-teacher-healer who existed in the early decades of the first century, lived in the areas of Galilee and Jerusalem, attracted a following and enough attention to get himself executed by the authorities, likely, the Roman authorities, with the likely complicity of the Jewish Temple authorities).
(Call him “Yeshua.”)
[There are many theories and legends as to who this individual really was and what he actually did and taught.]

Reflections on the problem:

Suppose we have this situation: All significant references to someone known as “Q” are consistent with each other and consistent with contemporary, known facts. Unless we have reason for thinking otherwise, the reasonable hypothesis is that these various references point to the same individual “Q”; this ‘working hypothesis’ will be stronger when there are living people who knew and interacted with Q. Generally in such cases it is plausible (sometimes easy) to separate facts about Q from fiction/myth/legends/exaggerations/etc. about Q.

None of this applies to the ‘Jesus’ of the New Testament.

But these things apply to most, unproblematic figures from the past, even the distant past. We have no reason for doubting that Abe Lincoln, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson existed, although in each case much fiction and myth can confuse the issue. We know that JFK existed, as did Martin Luther King, and Ronald Reagan, although they’re no longer around. Many people are still with us who knew them personally and interacted with them. No problem as to existence and identity here. Even in the case of the ancient figures, such as Plato, Aristotle, Euripides, or medieval figures like Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus, and Martine Luther, or later figures like Baruch Spinoza, Leonardo DeVinci, and Galileo — we don’t have any reason for doubting that they existed and did —more or less— what they’re credited with (or blamed for) doing.

The case of Socrates presents interesting questions, in some ways comparable to questions regarding Jesus, but in significant ways very different. Likely there aren’t any credible reasons for questioning the existence of an individual known as Socrates, even if it is true that he did not leave any written works. Generally, we can agree that Socrates is a historical figure who existed in ancient Athens; but we’re mostly limited to the writings of others, primarily, Plato (also Xenophon and Aristophanes) for specific information about the man. These writers lived during the lifetime of Socrates (contrary to the writers who first inform us about the man, Jesus) and their writings were read by people who had independent knowledge of Socrates; so Plato could not take too many liberties with his characterization of Socrates. Therefore, we can rely on the descriptions given by Plato, Xenophon, and even Aristophanes’ satire, as fairly good guides to the character and tendencies of Socrates. Furthermore, there is nothing that suggests a legendary, supernatural figure in all this, contrary to some of what we find with regard to Jesus.

We are presented with problems of identity and existential status when the referenced figure existed long before the direct memory and experience of anyone still living; and when the references to this figure are problematic: e.g., inconsistent with each other, inconsistent with known historical facts, laden with the stuff of myth and legend, and devoid of a significant body of unproblematic references. In such cases, it is virtually impossible to separate fact from fiction; and virtually impossible to expose the historical, factual individual “J”. We have no way of establishing, for a neutral, objective observer, that multiple references to “J” are really pointing to the same individual. We have no clear grounds for denying that most references to “J” are references to a fictional, mythical figure.

Robert Richert: The Bible and Creation

Note – the information below is essentially what is taught in Biblical studies courses at major universities and seminaries. I derived most of the material in this article from the following college textbooks:

Stephen Harris – “Understanding the Bible, a Readers Introduction”, Mayfield Publishers, second edition, 1985

Gerald LaRue – “Ancient Myth and Modern Life”, Centerline Press, 1988

Almost fifty percent of American citizens believe that the creation stories in the Book of Genesis are literally true. Other Christians believe that while these stories may not be literally true, they are consistent with modern scientific knowledge (for example, the sequence of creation is roughly consistent with what is known from science). In this paper, I will explain what today’s Biblical scholars know about these ancient accounts and argue that they bear no resemblance to the modern scientific view of the cosmos.

Interestingly, the Book of Genesis contains two different creation stories. There is general agreement amongst scholars that Genesis 2:4b to 3:24 was written during the time of King Solomon, about 950 BCE. Scholars refer to Genesis 2 as “J” for Jahweh, the German spelling of Yahweh. Genesis 1 (1:1 to 2:4a) is called “P”, for Priestly account; it was written about 550 to 400 BCE, much later than Genesis 1.

Here is a condensed version of the two creation stories placed side by side (From Ancient Myth and Modern Life, p63c):

Gen 2:4b-23 (circa 950 BCE)          Gen. 1:1-2:4a (circa 550 to 400 BCE)

1. Heavens and earth                        1. Primeval ocean, formless earth,
*                                                                     light formed to separate day and night

2. Mist to dampen ground              2. Firmament created in primeval ocean
*                                                                      – water above and below

3. Man (Adam) molded from         3. Waters gathered, earth appears,
earth                                                         vegetation created

4. Garden planted including          4. Sun, moon, stars created
tree of knowledge

5. Rivers of Eden                                5. Birds and sea creatures created

6. Assignment of Man                      6. Animals created
as gardener

7. Beasts, birds molded                    7. Humans created
from the earth

8. Woman formed from                    8. Sabbath created
(Adam’s) rib

Many Biblical apologists claim that Genesis 2 is a more detailed elaboration on Genesis 1. However, as the illustration above clearly shows, the sequences of creation in the two stories are contradictory and do not harmonize anywhere. Harmonizing these two stories requires dismissing modern scholarship and/or ‘elasticizing’ the text to fit with theological presuppositions. Genesis 1 and 2 are two completely different stories written by different peoples at different times – Genesis 1 was written hundreds of years after Genesis 2!

There are many parallels to earlier stories from other cultures in the two Genesis myths. The story of Adam and Eve shares a similar motif to the earlier Egyptian myth of Ra. In this story, men and gods lived together in a primordial paradise. Several ancient myths tell of an evil, seductive serpent that tempts man. The story of Noah and the flood is paralleled in two ancient Babylonian writings. One is about a high priest named Ziasudra that rescues his family and animals from a great flood. The other is found in the writing called, The Epic of Gilgamesh. In this story, the god Ninigiku-Ea instructs Utnapishtim to build a boat and rescue, “The seed of all living things” from the coming floodwaters. The Gilgamesh flood story, dating back to the third millennium BCE, shares many parallels to the story of Noah, which was written much later. In Babylonian mythology pre-dating Genesis, gods create man and animals from clay. In Genesis 2, God creates Adam from clay.
For decades, scholars have known that the creation account in Genesis 1 was derived from a much earlier Babylonian creation myth called Enuma Elish. Here are the similarities of the two accounts placed in sequence and side-by-side. (From Ancient Myth and Modern Life, p63c):

ENUMA ELISH                                               GENESIS

Divine spirit and cosmic matter are     Divine spirit creates cosmic
coexistent and coeternal                           matter and exists independently
*                                                                           of  it

Primeval chaos, the god Tiamat             Earth a desolate waste,
enveloped in darkness                                with darkness covering the deep

Light emanating from the gods               Light created

Creation of the firmament                         Creation of the firmament

Creation of dry land                                     Creation of dry land

Creation of the luminaries                         Creation of the luminaries

Creation of man                                              Creation of man

Gods rest and celebrate                               God rests and sanctifies
*                                                                              the 7th day

These two stories share far too many similarities to be dismissed as merely a matter of coincidence. Babylonian literature was known throughout the near east before the Hebrews became a nation. Genesis 1:1-2:4b likely came into existence during the Hebrew exile in Babylon. At that time, it is known that Babylonian thought influenced and impacted the Judean priesthood.

A popular modern interpretation of the opening verses of Genesis 1 is that God created the universe out of nothing (creatio ex nihilo). This idea stems from the fact that the King James Version of the Bible contains an incomplete translation; “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” However, today’s more accurate translations read; “When God began to create the heaven and the earth – the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the deep (Hebrew, “tehom”) and a wind from God sweeping over the water…” (Understanding the Bible, p52). Just like their ancient Canaanite, Babylonian and Egyptian counterparts, the Biblical God creates the world in the midst of a primordial watery abyss, not out of nothing! Creation from nothing was not part of ancient Hebrew thought.

Genesis 1 goes on to say that God separated the primeval waters with the firmament above and the earth below. The Hebrew word for firmament means ‘beaten out, like metal’, or ‘beaten metal bowl’. Genesis doesn’t mention the specific shape of the earth, but the common view at the time in this part of the world was that the earth is flat. In the Genesis 1 story, the earth below and dome above in tandem hold back the watery abyss that lies beyond. Recall that when God begins the flood in Genesis 6:11, “All the springs of the great deep burst forth, and the floodgates of the heavens (dome) were opened”.

All of this is consistent with neighboring ancient pre-scientific cosmologies; an earth-centered cosmos, the optical illusion that the earth is flat and that the sky is a dome that meets the earth at the horizon. For example, in an Egyptian depiction (Papyrus of Ani, Book of the Dead, dating back to about the fifteenth century B.C.E.), the sky goddess Nut is posed in a semi-circular arching ‘dome-like’ position representing the heavens. Her body is supported by the outstretched arms of Shu, the air god. Below him is Geb, the earth god, posed in a reclining position to represent the hills and valleys of the otherwise flat earth.

The two creation stories in Genesis were written at different times by different authors. Much of the material is derived from more ancient myths and motifs. They are inconsistent with one another and modern scientific knowledge. Nothing in Genesis describes a vast expanding universe; deep time and space; a sun-centered solar system; the formation of the earth from the gravitational attraction of matter; and the subsequent evolution of life. The Biblical creation stories don’t even come close to getting it right! However, they are consistent with the cosmological thought of surrounding cultures that existed before and during the times in which the Genesis accounts were written.

There certainly is no objective reason to believe that these stories are divinely inspired. The evidence is crystal clear that men limited by the parochial knowledge of their time authored these ancient myths.

Mad Men Series #5: Martin Gardner on mathematics as reality and the mystery of free will

A few days after the death of Martin Gardner this past May 22, 2010, a friend handed me the text of a very interesting interview that he did with “Skeptic” magazine. Most likely Michael Shermer, the editor, was the interviewer. In this interview Gardner discussed of number of fascinating issues and questions in science, philosophy, and religion. The interview gives us a picture of a lively, probing intellect, which Gardner unquestionably was. Although I often disagreed with some of his views, I always felt that reading and listening to what Gardner had to say taught me a lot. So my criticism of a couple of ideas brought out by this interview should not be read as implying that I did not respect and admire Gardner’s work.

What Mr. Gardner says concerning the possibility of an afterlife and the “mystery” of free will reminds me that even very intelligent persons can go off on the wrong track. Even a genius can sometimes affirm ideas, which in other contexts we might associate with the assertions of mad men. This overstates the issue, of course, but I’m impressed by the ease with which critics admit crazy ideas as respectable just because respected scientists, mathematicians, and philosophers affirm them. In this context, I propose inclusion of the following two sets of ideas in my mad man series.

Mathematics, Reality, and Possible After-Life

First, Gardner on the possibility of an afterlife based on the possibilities suggested by string theory in physics:

“ can defend immortality on the grounds that everything that constitutes our selves or our identity is a mathematical pattern. If superstring theory turns out to be true, they you can ask what are superstrings made up of, and they aren’t made of anything! If all matter is pure mathematics, then you can imagine that an all powerful deity who knew the pattern could reconstruct you. .”

The proposition that “everything that constitutes our selves or our identity is a mathematical pattern” is simply fantastic. Doesn’t it simply ignore biological reality, that is, the fact that first and foremost, human beings are biological beings? Regardless of where the highly theoretical work of string theorists seems to point, the facts are that physical, chemical, and biological reality is not just a mathematical pattern. To say that much of physical reality can be analyzed in terms of mathematical patterns is not to demonstrate that physical reality reduces to a mathematical pattern. This is simply a leap in reasoning, a fallacy, that too many mathematical physicists (e.g. string theorists) and metaphysically inclined mathematicians make. Gardner should have been more cautious in his philosophical inference.

The other part of Gardner’s statement, that one can ask “what superstrings are made up of” and answers that, since they’re not made of anything, “all matter is pure mathematics,” is simply some very hasty generalizations that don’t stand up to scrutiny. First, with regard to a highly mathematized physical theory like string theory, our intuitive concepts and ordinary language probably are not applicable. It is far from clear what is meant by asking what “superstrings are made of” or to see the equation of a constitutive ‘nothing’ with pure mathematics. These are simply metaphysical inferences that would need a lot of clarification before we could draw such inferences as Gardner is inclined to make: His conclusion that “matter is pure mathematics,” strikes me as just a piece of confused mystical metaphysics. Again it is surprising that Gardner would make such a careless move.

Surely such hasty and careless inferences regarding mathematics and physics cannot offer any support for the idea that a person, once having physically expired, can somehow be reconstituted. There is no support here for the idea of an afterlife.

Mystery of Free Will

Now let me turn to the other set of ideas, those concerning free will, that Mr. Gardner discussed in the interview:

M.G. “…there is the problem of human free will that makes prediction extremely difficult. On this question of free will, as a member of a group called the mysterians, I believe that we have no idea whether free will exists or how it works. .. “

Skeptic: You don’t believe free will is at the quantum level like some physicists do?

M.G. “ It doesn’t help if it is at the quantum level. That just makes it a random event, as if there is some kind of a roulette wheel in the brain. That doesn’t give you a choice. There are certain things I regards as ultimate mysteries. Free will is one of those. . . . Free will is bound up in the mysteries of time about which we can never understand, at least at this stage of our evolutionary history. . . ….. Mysterians believe that at this point in our evolutionary history there are mysteries that cannot be resolved, like free will. Noam Chomsky, for example, is a mysterian. He is on record saying that we don’t have the mental capacity to understand the nature of free will. . .”

Gardner claims that free will is a profound mystery beyond our power to resolve at this stage of our evolutionary history. This raises a number of issues which would take up more time and space than I have in this brief article. But I shall bring up a few outstanding problems and what I see as fallacies in this line of reasoning. It is commendable that Mr. Gardner gives short shrift to the idea that quantum physics somehow enables us to have free will. As Daniel Dennett has ably stated, this is wrong turn based on a misconception of what the free will problem amounts to; and would only show that some action is random. This does not show that humans are capable of what is normally understood by “free will.”

But Gardner’s statement that “we have no idea whether free will exists or how it works” assumes that free will is a mysterious entity which functions (works) in some way. This is surely a very questionable, likely confused, assumption. At the very least, this assumption needs to be examined and evaluated, not simply accepted as clear and unquestioned. It is the basis for much of the mystery of free will which Gardner then mentions as beyond our capacity to understand; hence, the embrace of the view of persons who call themselves “Mysterians.” (Daniel Dennett, in one of his books dealing the with free will issue, refers to the ‘mysterians.’ But I thought he was just applying a derogatory term to some of his opponents, like John Searle. Now I see that there is a group who go under that label.)

Admittedly, there are some puzzles and questions as to how our ability to make choices and engage in actions of our choosing (act ‘freely’ in this sense) is consistent with causal, scientific explanations (physics, biology, physiology, genetics, evolutionary psychology) of our conduct. But these puzzles do not demonstrate that we are incapable of free action or what traditionally has been called “free will.”
As Dennett has argued well, in this books Elbow Room and Freedom Evolves, nothing brought out by any of the relevant sciences show that what we ordinarily call free choice or free action are paradoxes or impossible in the context of scientific explanation.

The mystery that impresses Gardner only arises because people assume that free will is a faculty or power that operates outside the scope of the physical-biological functions that comprise the physical human person. It is much like the mystery that arises when one assumes that the soul and the mind are entities which are not accounted for by the natural sciences as they apply to human beings. Yes, if we assume the presence of such entities as the soul and the mind, which are not part of the human brain, nervous system, sense faculties, and such — then you have a great mystery. The same is true regarding the very questionable assumption that free will is an entity operating independently of a person’s physical nature. But there is no reason whatsoever to make that assumption. A number of clear-headed philosophers, like Daniel Dennett, have shown that our capacity for free action — what is ordinarily called “free will’ – is compatible with all that the sciences have to say regarding human behavior. The so-called, mysterians, despite counting among themselves brilliant people like Gardner and Noam Chomsky, have simply followed a very confused path on this question.

There are many mysteries, some even profound mysteries, which science has not yet solved and which we might not be capable of resolving at this stage of our evolutionary history. But the puzzle of free will is not one of them.

Robert Richert: Second Letter to a Christian friend

Hi Friend,

In a recent conversation, you brought up the point that we mere mortal humans do not have the science and knowledge to make something as simple as a leaf. You made this argument to me several months ago – I surmise the implication is that scientists will never be able to create life out of non-life. As to this question, ‘life’ has been created in the laboratory, albeit primitive life. Check out the article on the website below.

Craig Venter creates synthetic life form

Craig Venter and his team have built the genome of a bacterium from scratch and incorporated it into a cell to make what they call the world’s first synthetic life form. For more information on Venter’s work, link to

As to the question, can humans ‘make’ something as simple as a leaf, the answer is yes, and it is done every day! For example, if you want to ‘make’ oak leaves, just plant acorns, nurture them and wait for the tree to grow. Eventually, you’ll get oak leaves. Before you dismiss my point here, please understand that there is a method to my madness! You see, if one looks to nature, one sees a clear distinction between the way that humans make things – usually by assembling various parts – and the way that living things come into existence. No leaf or any living thing for that matter is assembled whole cloth from a batch of parts lying around. Instead, living things begin as a single cell that divides, diversifies and eventually grows into an adult with various complex parts. It amazes me that some people cannot accept that we humans evolved by means of a step by step process from simple one-celled organisms over eons of time – when each individual human goes through a similar evolutionary process from fertilization to adulthood in a few years!

We tend to be anthropomorphic. That is, we tend to view nature from our own perspective and apply our own ways and means of thinking and doing to nature. What makes Darwin’s insight – evolution by means of natural selection – so brilliant and magnificent is its counter-intuitiveness – and its continual confirmation since its debut in 1859. Nature, in ‘making’ living things, doesn’t work like a watchmaker, an architect, or an engineer. I do not have the time or space to show how natural selection works – I can say that it is NOT like a tornado rushing through a junkyard and assembling a 747, as Creationists say. Natural selection IS a powerful process that in an incremental, step by step way that adds/builds upon previous changes as it goes, produces incredible complex ‘design’ purely by natural mechanisms. This is known beyond reasonable doubt – it has been observed in nature and reproduced in the lab. There are many good sources that explain this process, and I would be glad to send you references if you so desire. To conclude this section, I pose this thought from the perspective of a religious believer: Which God is wiser – one who must make each living thing or species individually like a factory worker – or one who creates a vast universe in which with the touch of a button (so to speak) initiates a process that needs no further guidance or tweaking: Just lots of space – the right raw materials and conditions (lots of stars, planets – the right elements; water, etc.) – add in deep time for all of this to unfold – and eventually (on a few rare worlds) evolves intelligent creatures like us! The latter is what Christian evolutionary biologists believe.

Everyday, scientists are discovering more about how living things evolved, and more importantly, the genetic mechanisms involved in evolution – its nuts and bolts. For example, did you know that each of us humans has a gene for ‘making’ the distribution of hair over our bodies virtually identical to that of a chimpanzee? Did you know that each of us has a gene for making a tail? Our genetic code includes many such remnants of our past. So…why aren’t we hairy and have tails? Because these genes get switched off during development of the embryo! Over time in the distant past, humans gradually lost their ape-ish hairiness and mammalian tales, but the gene is still with us; they just became dormant. It is one of the many little details about us that separates humans from our cousins the apes and other more distant relatives, and also demonstrates our connection to them. In fact, we are learning that many evolutionary changes in organisms are due to a ‘mutation’ that causes a particular gene or gene segment to switch on or off. Finally, upon rare occasions, humans are born with tails or hairy like an ape. Not that long ago, these unfortunate ‘freaks of nature’ would be ostracized by family and society. Many ended up working in circuses and side shows in order to make a meager living. However, thanks to our modern understanding of evolution and genetics, we know why these people are the way they are.

We now have fantastic sequences of fossils demonstrating evolution. For example, we have a beautiful fossil sequence of many specimens showing the evolution of whales from a ground dwelling carnivore that looked somewhat like a wolf and lived over 50 million years ago. We have sequences of fossils showing the evolution of fish to amphibians, amphibians to reptiles, and reptiles to mammals and birds. We have over 200 specimens of our own ancient ancestors. We now know that our ancestors and that of the chimpanzees diverged from a common ancestor 6 to 7 million years ago. We know that our ancestors began to walk upright long before our brains became bigger. The famous fossil Lucy is about 3.5 million years old. Her skull and brain case is much more – but not exactly – like that of an ape than that of a modern human. Yet, her pelvis and leg structure is much more – but not exactly – like that of a modern human. Lucy has characteristics more human than ape and others more ape than human and others right in between the two – a transitional form between species – exactly what was predicted by Darwin’s theory before we had these fossils!

I know that your church or elements of your church are Creationists. I must say that Creationism and its counterpart, Intelligent Design (ID) have zero credibility in academia! In fact were it not for their well financed efforts to undermine the teaching of evolution in our schools, they would be a laughing stock. There are no Creation/ID departments at any major university in the free world, no scientific conferences on the subject, no papers being published in peer reviewed scientific journals. In short, no Creationist/ID activity, research, or even slight interest as a real science exists within the scientific community at all! In fact, despite Creationist’s bogus claims of thousands of scientist supporters, there are only a tiny handful of Creationist/ID people with advanced scientific degrees related to evolution – and none of this pitifully few has any status or stature in the scientific community. Creationism/ID is a social/religious movement, NOT a scientific one. The only debates in science about evolution are about the details of how evolution works, not whether it happened. In science, evolution by means of natural selection has been a settled issue for over 100 years. It’s a done deal!

If there were no Book of Genesis, there would be no conflict about evolution today between Fundamentalists and scientists. In fact, most mainstream Christian churches have made their peace with evolution (ex. Catholics, Presbyterians, Methodists). What is ironic to me is that the two creation accounts in Genesis, when taken literally, do not jibe at all with what we now know about the universe, earth, and life – and to make matters worse, the two accounts don’t even match each other!

My friend, you are an intelligent, inquisitive person. Yes, you can be a good Christian and also accept the reality of the world as science has ‘revealed’ to us. Most Bible scholars will tell you that the Bible, especially Genesis, was not written to be taken literally. The Bible is NOT a science book! In fact, many religious thinkers believe that Biblical Literalism undermines the deeper meanings and greater scope of the Bible’s message.

This is my long-winded response to your comments…and I have plenty more! I hope this e-mail gives you some food for thought.


More of the Mad Men Series: Car Culture

“I constantly think about and dream about my car! My car is an extension of me. Without my car I feel lost.”

—- any number of adolescent and young males in the USA

We’re so accustomed to the automobile in our daily existence that people who get around by walking, bicycle, or public transportation, when they could drive a car, appear odd, if not downright mentally unbalanced. In a sequel novel, Duane’s Depressed, which followed his earlier works, The Last Picture Show and Texasville, the novelist Larry McMurty, presents his protagonist, Duane Moore, as a slightly disturbed man who decides to park his pickup and walk wherever he needs to go. His family, relatives, and friends all think he has gone mad. Duane simply wants to get out of his pickup (in which he feels stagnant), walk in the open air, and think about things. McMurty presents, Duane, as undergoing a psychological crisis in his life; but the fact that McMurty portrays Duane’s “psychological crisis” by his decision to walk rather than drive and the way other characters in the novel react to Duane’s behavior shows the degree to which we think that the automobile is essential to our lives, and the degree to which we question the good sense of anyone who tries to live without the almighty automobile. McMurty uses this episode as a way of showing Duane’s mental depression; and the reader understands because he, like most of us, thinks that abandoning a perfectly good automobile to travel by foot indicates odd behavior, if not a degree neurosis. In short, we all assume the values of the car culture.

However, today more and more people are beginning to question the assumptions and values of our “car culture.” These people are not at all odd folks and people slightly mentally unbalanced. The opposite is more likely the case: They’re very sane, fine people.

Who really is the mad person? Is it the person who has come to think that a four-wheeled machine is essential to his existence or is it the person who has begun to think that this machine, useful though it might be, should not dominate our actions and thinking?

Before making a few statements as to where our real madness lies, I will admit the value of the automobile as a form of transportation (after all, who can rationally deny this?). In short, I shall credit the view that our car culture may not be indicate complete madness.

To appreciate the value of the automobile you only need to try walking distances that normally take only a few minutes on the automobile. Unless you’re a great walker, you will quickly appreciate the value of automobile travel. The automobile has allowed communities to spread out in ways impossible before the automobile. We can have more “elbow room” in our cities and towns, and more choices in where we live and work. Much of our economy depends on automobile travel and transportation, as do the greater variety and the availability of consumer goods. It is hard to argue against the proposition that our material standard of life has improved as a result of the automobile. As means of travel and transportation, the automobile is unquestionably valuable. Most people would argue that the automobile culture represents a rational life style.

Yes, automobile travel represents a rational alternative with plenty of social benefit. And the skeptic might seem as silly as Duane walking the long distances of Western Texas when he could drive his pickup. But this is not the complete story, because the social benefits of the car culture come with social and ecological cost.

First, let’s ask just how rational a life style does the automobile represent? In other words, let us ask who really is the mad man: the person who parks his car and walks and the one that cannot be removed from his beloved car? Walking is healthy; sitting behind the wheel every day makes you fat and lazy.

The car-culture life style is not very rational when you think in terms of efficiency, and conjoin this with our habit of driving alone. Many foreigners remark on our one-person , one-car pattern of travel. This means that a 3-4 thousand pound machine with 110-190 horsepower is used to transport one person, average weight 150 lbs. This is neither efficient nor rational.

As a counter-example, bicycle travel is many times more efficient and more practical than the automobile for distances in the 5-8 mile range. At such distances, when you take into account delays due to street congestion, the time needed to find parking, and the time spent moving from parked vehicle to your destination, the difference in travel time between automobile and bicycle is negligible, if not one favoring the bicycle.
[….the WorldWatch Institute published some .. figures on cycling. Comparing energy used per passenger-mile (calories), they found that a bicycle needed only 35 calories, whereas a car expended a whopping 1,860. Bus and trains fell about midway between, and walking still took 3 times as many calories as riding a bike the same distance. ]

Who is the mad man?

Our driving habits are also not very rational when you think in terms of cost, both to the individual and to society. We use fossil fuels at an alarming rate and will eventually drain the earth of these resources.

The automobile is also not seen as a rational alternative when you take into account the negative impact on the environment: air pollution and CO2 emissions which are a major cause of the looming global climate change.

Cities, especially in western U.S., have been designed to accommodate our automobile culture. This is evident in the growth and expansion of outlying suburbs; in the continuing need for more and more freeways and the constant transformation of every available space into multi-level parking structures at business and retail locations, both in the urban centers and throughout the suburbs. In spite of all the construction and transformation to accommodate the automobile, most of us in urban and suburban areas suffer the daily affliction of traffic congestion and lack of room for parking all those vehicles.

Who is the mad man when you consider the cost of the automobile in terms of yearly deaths, maiming, and serious, debilitating injuries due to automobile accidents? Check out the statistics and weep. Moreover, have you tried driving the freeway and streets of any major city during rush hour? Welcome to the daily grid lock!

Who is the mad man?

Remarks on Abortion and the person not-yet-present

Often the horror that people feel before the prospect of aborting an early pregnancy is caused by thought of the “future person” that is being terminated. In other words, people’s attention focuses on potential existence rather than the actual reality: something-that-will-become-a-person, rather than a zygote or embryo, is being destroyed. From this it becomes an easy step in thinking to arrive at the thought that a person is being destroyed. The thinking is that only time and development separate a potential person from an actual person; and somehow “time and development” become irrelevant to the issue of abortion. Aborting the actual is killing the potential.

Sometimes the position is advanced by way of an anecdote: we’re told that the mother of some famous, creative individual (call him “Beethoven”) considered aborting her pregnancy prior to giving birth to Beethoven. Then we all heave a sigh of relief because Beethoven’s mother decided not to abort, and thus did not deprive the world of a great creative talent. For many the thought is: “What a horrible thing! She almost killed Beethoven!”

From such stories we’re expected to draw the moral lesson: avoid abortions, unless they are absolutely necessary; for you may likely be killing a wonderful and great human being (albeit a potential human being).

From the premise ‘that we have destroyed X which had the potential of becoming Y’ the conclusion ‘that we have destroyed Y’ does not follow.

The zygote has the potential of becoming a human infant, thus we place high value on the zygote. But placing high value on the zygote in virtue of its potential for personhood is not the same as ascribing personhood to the zygote.

What is the mark of personhood? Certainly not the mere potential to develop into a human individual; otherwise, human eggs and spermatozoa would count as human beings.

Abortion should not be seen as merely another form of birth-control; of course, only early-term abortion could reasonably be seen this way. At any rate, destruction of the developing human fetus should not be a routine matter, lightly undertaken. (Spoken like a man! How often do women lightly undertake abortions?)

What’s our concern here? ….the potential human life that’s being destroyed? …the human being who shall not exist, but could have existed? …. “We project our thoughts to a future stage, to the existence of a human individual; and then see this human (potential human) as being destroyed or being denied entry. We see an evil perpetrated on this future being.
Something having the potential to develop into a human infant is not yet a human infant.
If X can develop into Y, or is in the process of becoming a Y, destruction of X prevents the emergence of Y; but surely is not the destruction of Y; for Y has not yet come into existence. The killing of a tadpole prevents that tadpole from developing into a frog; but this cannot be correctly characterized as the killing of a frog. How can we kill something which is not yet present?

Principle: a necessary condition of the killing of @ is that @ is present (exists).
Corollary: given that @ is not yet present, @ cannot be killed.


Human life, as with all life, can be seen as a continuum: a continuous line from conception to death. In principle, all persons can trace their development from the point when an egg was fertilized by a sperm resulting in zygote, which later became an embryo and then a fetus developing to viability, and eventual birth as a human infant.
However, this continuum is not static or uniform. Different kinds of entities exist at different stages. The process is one of growth, development and transformation. An embryo grows and becomes a fetus, which becomes an infant, which becomes a child, and so on. Ordinarily a child will develop into an adult, but disease or accident can kill the child and cancel the emergence of the adult. Suppose the child is killed; surely only from a state of great confusion would one say that the adult was killed. The adult never appeared. How can anyone reasonably say that the adult was killed?

A moral sleight of hand:
We look back to an earlier stage and attribute to the earlier stage (some of) the properties of the later stage.
“At an early stage of our existence we were fetuses (mere embryos, zygotes, fertilized eggs); so in a sense we are just ‘fully developed fetuses.’
Looking back, we specify a fetus as being not a mere fetus, but the fetus-that-will-develop-into-a-person we love and admire. So, in a sense, we assign the same high value to the fetus that we attribute to the person that we love and admire.

A misconception arises: for the view of a value-laden fetus is not based (as it should be) on recognition of the potential of the fetus, but is based on the erroneous belief that, in some sense, the fetus already possesses that future personhood.

A fetus in retrospection is not seen as a fetus, but is perceived as possessing in some way the attributes of the eventual person. Small wonder that abortion of the fetus is seen as killing of the developed human being.

Remarks about the Philosophy-as-Therapy Idea

One dictionary definition of ‘therapy’ is the treatment of a disease, physical or mental, by medical or physical means, usually excluding surgery. A more general definition refers to ‘therapy’ as the effort to alleviate some disorder, usually mental in some sense, by some use of a therapeutic method or technique. It is doubtful that the study of philosophy is a form of therapy in either of these primary meanings of the term “therapy.” Generally philosophers do not offer treatments for psychological problems; nor are there widely accepted philosophical methods or techniques for treating those who seek therapy. But maybe the case for philosophy as therapy is better when we consider other accepted uses of the term ‘therapy,’ as when one speaks of the therapeutic benefit of a relaxed walk in the woods, or a session of meditation, or a visit to the Grand Canyon, or a conversation with good friends, or from listening to great music or reading our favorite poets. This secondary sense of “therapy” is one that might apply when we consider the question whether philosophy can have therapeutic value.

The proposition that philosophy can function as a form of therapy brings up two related questions:

1) Can the study of philosophy help a person to improve his thinking and actions, and maybe realizing some version of the ‘good’ life?

2) Can we describe philosophy, as a family of disciplines, as aiming in part to helping individuals deal with suffering, frustration, unhappiness and mild mental disorders; i.e., does the work of philosophers aim at some form of therapy?

My answer is a qualified “yes” to the first, and “no” to the second question. Philosophy is primarily an intellectual discipline, focused on conceptual-theoretical issues, not at all a method of therapy. In its primary function philosophy is not a therapeutic method or practice. However, there are aspects of philosophy, past and present, which allow a more favorable assessment of the therapeutic value of philosophical study for some forms of ‘philosophy’ and for some individual needs.

Many students and practitioners of philosophy do not associate philosophy with therapy of any kind. I would guess that this is the opinion held by many of my contemporaries, who were trained in philosophy at American colleges and universities back in the 1960-70s decades (my period of formal studies in philosophy at the undergraduate and graduate levels). Our training in philosophy enabled us to teach, analyze, discuss, and write concerning great figures in philosophy, differing schools of philosophy, different issues, problems and persisting questions in philosophy. Among other things, the objective was to familiarize students with the history, the great philosophers, and the persisting questions in philosophy; and eventually to enable students (those who majored in philosophy) to handle philosophical questions in logical and critically-informed ways. Any grading of students’ performance was based on critical, conceptual criteria. Most people did not expect that students would realize some therapeutic value from taking a course in philosophy. If some students did realize some personal, psychological benefit, it was seen as an accidental affect of the course of study, which often resulted in disturbing students more than reassuring them. Generally students did not expect any significant personal improvement or psychological benefit to result from their study of philosophy.

There are some aspects of the subject of philosophy which suggest the contrary view: that philosophy touches on ‘therapy’ insofar as it has something to do with challenges of living a good life and working toward some form of personal happiness or fulfillment. The famous quote from the great Socrates, “the unexamined life is not worth living,” and his reference to the inscription at Delphi to “know thyself” surely suggest a view of philosophical life which is more than an impersonal study of theories, concepts, and problems. It suggests the life and teachings of Socrates as an example of a life worth living. In addition, the ethical works of Aristotle, which give guidance to a life of ethical excellence and the development of a morally virtuous character, surely seem to imply that philosophy aims not simply at enabling philosophical knowledge but also at instructing us to act well in the world. When we add the reflections of the Stoic philosophers, the ‘consolations’ of Beothius (“.. a just man unjustly suffering is confirmed in his conviction that happiness and fortitude may be found in adversity.” ), and in later period, the rational faith expressed by Spinoza in his Ethics (“to act in conformity with virtue is nothing but acting, living, and preserving our being as reason dictates.”), we see an aspect of traditional philosophy which has much to do with the individual’s attempts to cope with the challenges of life, to find ways handling tragedies and difficulties, and eventually to find the path to personal excellence and fulfillment. Thereby, we can say that some aspects of traditional philosophy in the West appear to support the idea that the practice of philosophy somehow touches on a form of personal therapy. At least this much is true: many figures in the history of Western philosophy have pursued philosophy as a form of life rather than just an academic field of study.

None of this implies that an essential element of the study of philosophy is either a therapeutic method or a form of personal therapy. Some people may realize therapeutic value from such a study, and surely many great figures in history saw philosophy as something directly applicable to the problems of living. But many individuals have studied philosophy and pursued philosophical answers to a variety of philosophical questions in ways that cannot be characterized as therapeutic or applying to problems of living. Of course, much depends on the ‘philosophy’ that one engages; or if you like, the nature of the philosophical task that one takes on. In the area of practical ethics and some aspects of normative ethics, it makes sense to propose that one’s aim is a practical one of specifying the paths to moral virtue and the higher good of human existence. To the extent that one does not merely try to define these, but also tries to put them into practice in one’s own existence, one might approach philosophy as activity having therapeutic value. A fairly recent book by Robert Nozick, The Examined Life, is a good example. But this is only one side of the field of Ethics; other aspects are not much concerned with values of life. Other areas of the philosophical disciplines include logic, epistemology, metaphysics, philosophy of science, of mathematics, and analytical, linguistic philosophy. In these areas one is not trying to find the key to better living, but concerned with more conceptual issues. (For example, much of the work in epistemology by John Locke, David Hume and Immanuel Kant; and work in logic, philosophy of math, and philosophy of science by such modern philosophers as Gottlob Frege, Bertrand Russell, and the early Wittgenstein.)

In Western tradition starting in the seventeenth and running through the nineteenth centuries, attention turned to problems related to knowledge, perception, consciousness, and theory of mind with Rene Descartes, through the line of British Empiricists, and given a critical analysis by Immanuel Kant. The student of philosophy working in these areas of epistemology and philosophy of mind did not focus much attention on questions of the good life and ways of attaining it. Contrary to this intellectual concentration, we find the Romantic writers and philosophers emphasizing a more vital perspective of human reality, which could be seen as involving some practices which could be called forms of therapy. We might also mention that philosophies in other cultures, e.g. Asian philosophies, tend to emphasize the themes of wisdom and a life more attuned to higher values and different dimensions of consciousness, rather than focusing attention on the intellectual-conceptual approach dominant in the West.

In English speaking societies, the trend in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was toward the more logical, analytical, ‘scientific’ form of philosophy. Here the natural sciences and mathematics were seen as models for intellectual disciplines. Insofar as English speaking philosophers (in the U.K., in the U.S., Canada and Australia) saw their discipline in this light, the philosophical disciplines are not characterized as a search for wisdom and rules for better living. These simply were not part of the philosophy practiced at many universities.

But the contrary case is evident with respect to schools of philosophy in Europe and South America, where Existentialism and more personally-oriented philosophies are in evidence. Many existentialist philosophers are concerned with the problems of human existence, although they may reject traditional ideas of wisdom and virtue. Insofar as their writing is directed to helping someone (writer, readers) cope with the absurdity, inauthentic values, and lack of integrity in modern life they can be seen as involved in a kind of therapeutic work. The works of philosophers like Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Miguel de Unamuno, Sartre, and Albert Camus can surely be read in this light. In America, the works of William James, Walter Kaufmann, Robert Nozick, more recently Martin Gardner and Stanley Cavell, reflect a philosophical approach concerned with ‘existential’ issues and thus touch on ways of coping with challenges of life. Philosophy here is not limited to conceptual and theoretical problems, but grapples with issues of living and working our way through the difficulties that life often brings. Hence, some people are inclined to see the work in a therapeutic context.

Most students of Wittgenstein’s later philosophy are not surprised to hear that some aspects of his work (e.g., in the Philosophical Investigations) can be seen as therapeutic in a philosophical sense. Some of his metaphors and analogies suggest that philosophical reflection of problems of language aim at enabling movement from a state of ‘disorder’ to a ‘healthier’ state. His reference to the need to recognize the extent to which language can “bewitch us,” his reference to philosophical problems as much like “philosophical cramp” that needs relief and his metaphor of “trying to show the fly how to escape the bottle,” all suggest that philosophy can be viewed as a sort of therapy.

Sometimes we might say that the writer himself (or herself) realizes some ‘therapy’ from his (her) work. A Wittgenstein or a Nietzsche intensely works to relieve some conceptual problem, in some cases, even some mental-spiritual difficulty. Readers or the audience of this effort might also get some help in dealing with their philosophical difficulties.

But does any of this indicate anything more than the fact that some people indulge in some intellectual, literary, or artistic activity — in some cases called a ‘philosophy’ – that has some therapeutic significance? Does it come to anything more than the fact that occasionally one feels better about one’s situation after reading some ‘therapeutic’ writer? Those who promote the idea of philosophy-as-therapy would argue that there is more to it than that; but this does not show that philosophy is a therapy. At best, some aspects of philosophical work may have therapeutic implications. Even those of us who remain skeptical of the idea of philosophy-as-therapy may assent to the qualified idea that some aspects of philosophy can help people to improve their thinking and actions, and thus prove ‘therapeutic’ in this sense.
David's watercolor fish