Monthly Archives: October 2010

Satan to the Atheist: Go to Heaven, Please!

Whenever I attend a conference or small meeting of atheists and secular skeptics, I am somewhat ‘put off’ by the general attitude that all religions and religious people are fair targets of ridicule, as if to say: “There’s nothing there worthwhile studying or trying to understand; it is all ignorance and stupidity.”

Admittedly not all atheists and skeptics have this attitude; among them are some very good historians and scholars of religious history and writings. An exception to the facile dismissal of all religion by the new atheists is the atheistic philosopher, Daniel Dennett, who calls for an objective, naturalistic study of religions in order to determine what might be worthwhile and what should be abandoned. He also makes the interesting distinction between belief in God and the belief in belief in God; noting that the difference is relevant to our evaluation of the religious attitude. But in other parts of his work in which he is identified as a ‘new atheist’ alongside the evolutionary scientist Richard Dawkins and the writer, Sam Harris, Dennett (much to my disappointment) tends to agree with those who hold that generally religious culture has little or nothing valuable for contemporary thought.

Walter Kaufmann, who was an effective ‘atheist’ and heretic long before our current crop of outspoken atheists, was also bothered by the general attitude among some secular-minded people that the worst aspects of religion characterized religion in general and the attitude that religious tradition offered little of value to modern thought. Kaufmann included a humorous dialogue between Satan and the Atheist in his 1960 book, Critique of Religion and Philosophy. After some humorous statement as to why more Christians and Muslims than Jews or Buddhists inhabit Hell, Satan offers some sarcastic remarks about the ‘culture’ of the atheist.

Here are excepts from the dialogue. Hopefully some readers will find it a humorous alternative to the over-simplified ‘philosophy’ that atheism represents the truth and religions represent nothing but barbaric and nonsensical ideas worth nothing but ridicule.

Dialogue between Satan and an Atheist —- borrowed from Walter Kaufmann’s Critique of Religion and Philosophy

A = Atheist (One of our current crop of ‘New Atheists’)
S = Satan

A: You look so content. Have you grilled another theologian for breakfast? Or did you heat up a Christian for your lunch?

S: Both, my friend.

A: I have often wondered how you catch Buddhists. After all, they do not believe the sort of thing Christians believe, so you can’t undermine their faith.

S: I get them to fall in love with the world.

A: By dangling beautiful women in front of ascetics?

S: Not necessarily. Their aim is to fall out of love with the world. I try to show them that suffering is worth while.

A: That’s what I said: women.

S: That works only in the least interesting cases. The others I try to interest in some cause, some task, some mission. I may even persuade them to spread their knowledge to as many men as possible. As soon as I have kindled some ambition, I generally do not find it too hard to involve them in all sorts of compromises. But there are other ways.

A: Just name one more.

S: Sometimes I try to lead them from detachment into callousness and indifference to the sufferings of others. But that works only in the early stages. Once a Buddhist has developed his peculiarly detached compassion he represents one of the hardest cases that I know. A Christian theologian is child’s play compared to that.

A: Who else gives you trouble?

S: For a long time the Jews did. I took the wrong approach. I argued about Scripture with them and got nowhere. They knew the texts just as well as I did, made connections from verse to verse across a hundred pages much more nimbly than I did, and were never, absolutely never, fazed by anything I said. I could not shock them. Usually they produced some rabbi who, more than a thousand years ago, had made my point and been given some classical answer. They considered this whole thing a game even more than I did: after all, for me it was business, too. For them, talking about Scripture was sheer delight. It was their favorite pastime which allowed them to forget their business and all their troubles. Where a Christian might have blenched they laughed, told stories to refute me or make fun of me, and I wasted my time.

A: But couldn’t you show them that their interpretations were untenable?

S: I tell you, they considered the whole thing a game, and they played it according to special rules: by their rules, their arguments were tenable. They never claimed that Moses had meant all the things they put into his mouth. Of course not. But according to the rules of the game it could be argued that an interpretation of the words of Moses was correct in spite of that —even several conflicting ones. What mattered was that you played well; and compared to some their rabbis, I didn’t.

A: So what happened?

S: I tried to get them to speak irreverently about God. Sometimes they did, but then it turned out to have been humor, and so it did not count. Threats, on the other hand, stiffened their backs, and most of them would rather be martyred than blaspheme under pressure. As long as the Christians martyred so many of them, there was a real dearth of Jews and Buddhists in hell, and the place began to fill up with Christians and Muslims. It got terribly stuffy, and there began to be talk of discrimination. I was even accused of having adopted a quota system. But now things have changed.

A: Did you change your policy of admission?

S: Not at all, But when the Christians stopped persecuting the Jews, I began to be phenomenally successful with a new approach. I told them that their way of life was dated, that their laws were not made for the modern world, that freedom was the big thing now, and that their ancient laws interfered with their freedom.

A: Do you mean to say that all Jews who eat pork go to hell?

S: Of course not. But once they give their laws, their old way of life goes by the board, and they no longer study Scripture as they used to. By now many of them know the Bible as little as Christian youths.

A: And does everyone who doesn’t know the Bible go to hell?

S: No, certainly not. But when they get to that point I ask them what right they have to call themselves Jews, religiously speaking. And that does make a dent. Then they start to worry. And whether they worry or not, their religion has become a social affair for most of them, just as for Christians.

A: I’m glad to hear that. More and more people are beginning to see the light. I have been joking with you, asking about people going to hell. I don’t really believe in hell. So far as I am concerned religion is bunk.

S: Just what do you mean by saying that? Bunk?

A: I mean, it is a lot of nonsense which isn’t worth bothering about. There are sensible things like science, especially psychology and anthropology, which are much more profitable. Religion is a stupid waste of time.

S: Oh, I don’t think so at all. There is nothing that interests me more. Religion is one of the most fascinating subjects in the world. I suppose you don’t like poetry and art either.

A: You are wrong. There are some painters and poets whom I like. Picasso, for example, and a lot of modern art. I like Tolstoy, too, before he became a Christian, or tried to become one. And Dostoevsky, in spite of his crazy religious ideas. I am interested in their psychology.

S: What about the Book of Genesis?

A: I don’t read stuff like that. Next you will ask me if I say Psalms. I must have been exposed to things like that as a child. But I have mercifully forgotten it.

S: Have you read no religious scriptures at all?

A: I have only an amateur’s interest in anthropology. I have read a bit about primitive religions. But I have never followed it up. There are all sorts of handy cheap editions now; perhaps I’ll try some of them next time I travel by train. Usually I drive.

S: But these things were not written for a quick dip on the train between a crossword puzzle and whiskey sour.

A: And why not? You would not want me to go to church to catch up with the Upanishads?

S: Of course not. You don’t go to church to catch up, as you call it, with Lear: but at least you take off an evening for it and give it your whole attention and let it do something to you.

A: And what should these scriptures do to me? At most I should want to fill a gap in my education. I don’t want to be converted.

S: Well, these are not things merely to know about or to have handy for a dinner conversation. The Bible and the Buddha, the Upanishads and the Bhagavadgita, Lao-tze and the Tales of the Hassidim, these are not things about which one is informed or not informed: what matters is that they speak to you and some way change you.

A: Have you become a preacher, Satan?

S: I am merely shuddering at the prospect of having to spend an eternity with you. I should rather like to make a human being of you before you settle down in my place. I don’t agree with the people who accept these scriptures, but I can talk with them and, to be frank, I rather enjoy talking with them. But you! I wish you would go to heaven.

More Reflections and Critique of Platonism

Need for Transcendent Justice?

[Here I reply a correspondent who argued that human-based justice is not real justice.]

Your reference to a “higher ideal of justice” suggests that you’re too mired in a Platonist view of reality. Unless you gain vision the form of justice, you only have a poor imitation of justice (or something to that effect).

Contrary to Plato and all other-world doctrines, ‘justice’ is a concept that arose in an earthly, human context. A rough statement of one notion of justice (in a moral context) is simply fairness or fair play. Treating someone fairly implies that her rights are respected and she is treated with the dignity each human deserves. This value is something that can be traced to the type of social beings that we are, social animals who evolved a large brain making a complex culture possible. Some of our moral values can be traced to the family and kin relationships. Justice and other moral values also came about because of the cultures, practices, institutions, education, training, etc. Yes, this is cryptic and incomplete; but we can explore extensive works on this issue, such as that of John Rawls, who offers an interesting theory as to how the concept of justice might have come about. But nothing here demands that in order to have a complete understanding of justice and just treatment of others we must believe in some other world or after life. Nothing demands — pace Plato — that one must have a vision of perfect justice in order to make sense of the down-to-earth value of justice.

The other point I shall make relates to the disconnect seen by some philosophers between a concern for social justice here on earth and an other worldly religion, such as that taught in the Gospels and in Paul’s writings. If the major concern is with salvation and gaining a position in the eternal realm, working for social justice here on earth may have a lower priority. Walter Kaufmann raises this objection against those liberal Christians who see the Gospel Jesus as working for social justice. (See his book, Faith of a Heretic.) Gospel Jesus is mainly concerned with teaching the message of salvation: how to gain eternal life in heaven.

It seems that Plato’s message in his dialogue, Phaedo, agrees with this general teaching. If the important point is the transcendent destiny of the eternal soul, how much concern does one have for achieving justice in this lower, physical world and reducing suffering of the body, which has little or no value after all.

With respect to your affirming the ideas of reincarnation and Karma as part of your account of justice: Of course, reincarnation is not part of the Christian otherworldly faith, but it is part of the otherworldly faith of several Eastern religions. It is not at all clear that this doctrine contributes positively to a concern with achieving some social justice here on earth. After all, what is happening now — no matter how unjust — is just Karma working itself out; and all things that happen — good or bad — have their just consequences in another existence. I take it this is what you mean by claiming that one will “meet justice in some future life.” Sorry, this just doesn’t do much for me.

Philosophy and Death:

“Philosophy as a preparation for death?” “Philosophy as the study of death?” Why should we accept such characterizations of philosophy? Maybe I’m being disrespectful to Plato, and his version of the great Socrates, when I say “thanks, but no thanks!”

Plato’s dialogue, Phaedo recounts a conversation that Socrates allegedly had with some of his friends and disciples as he awaited his death by hemlock. Here Plato credits Socrates with giving proofs of the immortality of the soul and with arguing that genuine philosophy is the study of death. Here death is understood as the soul’s separation from the body and from the physical-material world. This is a good thing because at death the soul returns to that eternal, higher reality, the realm of the forms. Given this picture of reality, we can see why, according to Plato, the philosopher should devote himself to a study of death, i.e, to the soul’s preparation for re-entry into the higher ‘divine’ reality.
The dialogue’s arguments only work if you assume, as this group of ancient Athenians did, that the soul is real and if you accept the reality of the realm of forms (an eternal, unchanging, non-physical reality). These are the background for the Socratic arguments that purport to prove that the soul preexisted birth, will survive after death, and is immortal. Also working in the background is Plato’s typical degrading of the physical and material reality, the body, and material values, as being less real and having less value than those ‘objects’ of the higher world. It is easy to see how Plato’s otherworldly philosophy became an inspiration and philosophical ground for some of the mystical, otherworldly philosophies that followed, including Christian other-world religious doctrines and Christian mysticism.

Relevance to contemporary Issues and Philosophies?

Admittedly Plato’s dialogues and his philosophy are very valuable as a piece of intellectual history. But I cannot imagine how his metaphysical philosophy has much relevance today to anyone sensitive to the work of the sciences and of critical, positive philosophies since the time of Spinoza and the Enlightenment. I believe that the biological sciences, neurology, cognitive sciences, linguistic sciences, and linguistic philosophies have shown that ancient arguments for the reality of soul, eternal and separate from the body, do not carry too far; and that the ancient Greek arguments for the realm of forms are no longer very persuasive. (None of this should be understood as discounting the relevance of the more down-to-earth, moral philosophy of Socrates.)

Some of us find more philosophical inspiration in the rational, humanism of an Epicurus (based on the atomistic materialism of Democritus), than we find in Plato’s dialogues. Certainly, as an ancient precursor to modern science and rational secular thought, Epicurus is as good an ancient source as Plato. Plato’s student, Aristotle, develops a philosophy which has more to offer the contemporary student than the other-worldly mysticism of Plato.


If philosophy retains any relevance and importance for people today [and that’s a big “IF”), it is as an attempt to make sense of life here on earth, not some purported afterlife or other-world — and as an attempt to help people deal with the challenges and problems that life presents. A philosophy obsessed with other worlds or ideal worlds, and which degrades our mortal, material existence on earth (like Plato’s does) or a religion emphasizing the life-to-come (e.g. Christianity) would propose such propositions as “Philosophy is a preparation for death” or “Philosophy is the study of death.”

Don’t we have enough to do just trying to deal intelligently and effectively with this life? Why spend our energies with speculations as to some ideal world (Plato realm of forms)? Why look on life as a preparation for some putative future existence following death? This is Plato’s unfortunate legacy to the Western intellectual world. Of course, the doctrine builders and theologians of Christianity loved him, as do most mathematicians who adopt some of his ideas regarding a higher ideal reality. But for the rest of us, this obsession with an ideal world, an afterlife, or an other-world — along with it’s devaluation of this world — is simply not a path that we wish to take. For many of us, this ‘philosophy of the other-world surely seems to be a premature, sorry resignation from this world, the only reality we can be sure about.

I’m as uncomfortable with this Platonist notion of philosophy as my correspondent is reassured by it. With apologies to all Platonists and spiritualists out there, I shall conclude with some lines of prose on this ever-popular obsession with other-worlds by Friedrich Nietzsche, who had some insight on these things.

“”It was suffering and incapacity that created all afterworlds — this and that brief madness of bliss which is experienced only by those who suffer most deeply.
“Weariness that wants to reach the ultimate with one leap, with one fatal leap, a poor ignorant weariness that does not want to want any more: this created all gods and afterworlds.”

(from Thus Spoke Zarathustra, 1st part – translation by Walter Kaufmann)

The Hanging Day that could not happen, but did?

Here’s an interesting paradox you might not have heard before. It is called the paradox of the alleged impossibility of scheduling a surprise hanging, or fire drill, or appearance by Obama, or any such event that will be anticipated or not by people involved.

This paradox is found in William Poundstone’s book Labyrinths of Reason (Anchor books, 1988)

There are different ways of stating the paradox. Here’s one of them:

A man, call him Brad, has been convicted of murder and sentenced to hanging. The hanging must take place on the final week of the year, sometime during the final five-day work week. The judge who imposed the penalty also dictates that the convicted man will not know beforehand which day of the week he will be hanged, in short, he requires that the specific day of execution will come as a very bad surprise.

SENTENCE: Brad’s hanging will happen one day of the last week (M,T,W,Th,F) of the final week of the year. But we’re not saying which day.

Brad’s lawyer, Chris, happens also to be a logician. When he hears the judge pronounce sentence, he smiles. Brad is taken aback by this. Later, when he and Chris confer, Chris explains. “Relax, Brad,” he says, “the judge just contradicted himself. The hanging cannot take place.” “Why not?” asks Brad.

Chris explains: “The judge requires that the hanging day be a surprise, one which we cannot anticipate. But consider the possibilities. Let’s start by taking Friday as a possible hanging day. Well if we get through the first four days of the week (Mon, Tues, Wed., Thurs.) without a hanging, then we would know that the hanging would be on Friday, which denies the condition for the hanging. This implies that Friday cannot be the day; so eliminate Friday.

“Now consider Thursday as a possible day for the hanging. Well, since Friday has already been eliminated, and we get through the first three days (Mon, Tues, Wed) without a hanging, then by deductive inference we would know that Thursday was the day, since Friday has been eliminated. But we cannot anticipate the day; so Thursday cannot be the day. So eliminate Thursday, as well.

“Now let’s take Wednesday as a likely day for the hanging. Well, since Thursday and Friday have already been eliminated. Now suppose that we get through the first two days of the week (Mon, Tues) without a hanging, then by deductive inference we would know that Wednesday would be the day. But we cannot anticipate. So eliminate Wednesday, as well.

“Now consider Tuesday as a possibility. Well, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday have already been eliminated. Suppose we get through the Monday without a hanging; then by deductive inference we would know that Tuesday has to be the day. But this would anticipate Tuesday. So eliminate Tuesday as well.

So with Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday all eliminated as possible hanging days, only Monday remains. But then the possible hanging on Monday would not be a surprise, and thus cannot happen on Monday. So eliminate Monday.

Ergo, the surprise hanging cannot take place that week. Ergo, it won’t happen!

“So, chortles the triumphant Chris to the worried Brad, all five days of the week are logically eliminated! None of them can be the day of your hanging. You will not hang!”

But the final week of the year arrived and on Wednesday at 6 P.M. Brad was led to the gallows and hanged, contrary to the assurance given by defense lawyer-logician Chris that it could not occur.

What happened? Wasn’t Chris’s logic impeccable? How is it possible that the hanging took place and caught Chris and Brad by surprise, much Brad’s great disadvantage?

Can anyone give me a clear analysis of the paradox? Why the contradiction between the conclusion of a sound, deductive argument (hanging cannot happen) and the fact (hanging happened on Wednesday)?

Did Darwin Suppress his work in the Face of Religious Opposition?

I appreciate books that argue in favor of Science and the ideals of the Enlightenment against the obstruction of religion and the obscurity of philosophy. Timothy Ferris has written such a book, The Science of Liberty. It promises to be a book well worth our time of close, critical reading. However, Mr. Ferris commits a minor error which I found annoying. In the third chapter of his book, “The Rise of Science,” Ferris refers to Charles Darwin and the delay in publishing his famous work, The Origin of the Species. Ferris classifies Darwin with history’s “martyrs to the cause of science,” such as Galileo, who was coerced by the Inquisition into recanting a few of his early astronomical findings. Ferries writes:

“Every age has produced its own martyrs to science. . . Charles Darwin long suppressed his theory of evolution rather than face the religious indignation that indeed greeted its eventual publication.”

(page 45)

This is a surprising, somewhat annoying statement for some of us who know a little of the history of the writing and publication of Darwin’s great work; taken as an explanation of Darwin’s delay in publishing his great work, it is simply false.

Most students of Darwinian evolutionary theory and the history of science know that Darwin took over twenty years to research, prepare, write, and eventually publish his great work. Students are also aware of the great opposition and hostility that its publication inspired from the religious authorities and from a great part of the intellectual community of the mid-nineteenth century England. Those of us who are familiar with some biographical works, publications and film on Darwin, know that he was aware of, likely apprehensive about, the controversy that his work would trigger. He also lamented that his elimination of a Creator from his account of life’s evolution would have a troubling affect on his wife, Emma, who was a pious Christian. But to my knowledge there is nothing in any reputable biography of Darwin’s life or in any of Darwin’s letters and autobiographical comments for the years leading up to the 1859 publication of the The Origin of the Species which indicates that Darwin suppressed publication of his work because he was reluctant to face the “religious indignation that .. greeted its eventual publication.” The facts, as recounted in such biographies (e.g., The Survival of Charles Darwin, by Ronald W. Clark) and in autobiographical statements and letters by Darwin himself, are that it took over twenty years of intense research and development before he felt he had an adequately grounded theory to present. He did not suppress or delay publication because of religious or political factors; he simply did not feel that his work was ready to do what he hoped to do: make as strong a case as possible for natural evolution of species in the face of centuries of belief in God’s creation of animal and plant species in static, unchanging forms.* As Steve Jones remarks,

“Before Darwin, the great majority of Naturalists believed that species were immutable productions, and had been separately created.”

(page xviii, Introduction to Jones’ book, Darwin’s Ghost).

In short, Darwin faced opposition from variousl camps, not just religious ones; but his delay had nothing to do with his reluctance to fly in the face of such opposition.

Admittedly, Ferris’s remark to the contrary (that Darwin suppressed publication of his work because of religious opposition) is not an important part of the idea that he develops in Chapter 3 (“The Rise of Science”) of his book, namely that science has had its share of “martyrs” and that many significant steps in the development of a naturalistic theories of the world and humans have met with strong opposition from the religious side. But Ferris should have taken more care and not included such a misleading statement about Darwin’s momentous work, and misleading it is, if not outright false.

In his book, Darwin’s Ghost, Steve Jones tells us that in spite of his twenty-year search for evidence, Darwin was so conscious of the gaps in his thesis that he might never have made it public; and that his book is full of apologies:

“To treat this subject at all properly, a long catalogue of dry facts should be given; but these I shall reserve for my future work . . . It is hopeless to attempt to convince any one of the truth of this proposition without giving the long array of facts which I have collected, and which cannot possibly be here introduced . . . I must here treat the subject with extreme brevity, though I have the materials prepared for ample discussion.”

Jones then adds,

“Today’s readers may feel a certain relief that the promised book never appeared. By happy chance, Darwin was stung into publication of a summary of his ideas by an unexpected letter from Alfred Russel Wallace containing the same notion.”


Here Jones refers to a few elements of the long story of how Darwin finally got around to publishing his great work. The facts seem to be that he was developing such a big work that publication seemed a remote event. Eventually he was compelled to put together what he called an abstract of his greater work. Clark writes

“Darwin’s “Abstract” of which he wrote to Spencer in November of 1858 was the result of a series of traumatic events. IN the spring of 1855 he had written to William Darwin Fox: “I am hard at work on my notes, collecting and comparing them, in order in some 2 or 3 years to write a book with all the facts & arguments, which I can collect, for and versus the immutability of species.” The plan then was for something much longer and almost certainly less readable than The Origin turned out to be. At the worst, it could have been a book that would never be finished at all.”

Clark than tells us that

“these prospects were dramatically changed by the appearance on the scene of Alfred Russel Wallace, then in the Far East, to whom “a sudden flash of insight,” as he called it, had revealed a solution to the species problem identical in its main idea to Darwin’s.”

(page 95)

In summary, the story here is not one of delay and suppression because Darwin feared the indignation of religious authorities. The story, rather, is one of a natural scientist who wanted to build the best possible case for his theory of evolution of species, who apparently could not stop accumulating additional evidence for his theory, and who eventually was spurred to publication of an “abstract” of his work by the prospect that Wallace would get priority with his publication of a theory of natural selection. In all works on Darwin which I have studied, including Clark’s very detailed biography ** and account of the events leading up the publication of The Origin of Species, and some autobiographical material and letters by Darwin himself, there is absolutely no reason for concluding that he suppressed publication of his work because he anticipated great religious indignation and opposition.

*If anyone can find information to the contrary (supporting the Ferris remark) in any reputable work on Darwin, I’ll be glad to look at it.

** more biographical information relevant to the subject from Clark:
Clark: “…Wallace’s book was never written. But in September 1855 issue of the Annals and Magazine of Natural History there appeared his paper “On the Law Which Has Regulated the Introduction of New Species.” A cautious argument for the evolution of species, the paper maintained: “The following law may be deduced from these facts: –Every species has come into existence coincident both in space and time with a pre-existing closely allied species.” . . . Wallace’s paper fell short of the theory on which Darwin was working, but there were sufficient similarities in it to alarm Lyell, who wrote to Darwin urging that he should delay no longer in publishing his own findings. . . . . Darwin still dallied, and it was April 1856 before he revealed to Lyell the position that he had now reached. (97) . . Lyle urged Darwin to publish his theory, and his other scientific friends appear to have agreed . . . Surely now was the time for Darwin to start writing. But he still hesitated. “I hardly know what to think, “ he wrote to Lyell on May 3, “but will reflect on it, but it [publication] goes against my prejudices. To give a fair sketch would be absolutely impossible, for every proposition requires such an array of facts. If I were to do anything, it could only refer to the main agency of change – selection – and perhaps point out a very few of the leading features, .. and some few of the main difficulties. But I don not know what to think; I rather hate the idea of writing for priority, yet I certainly should be vexed if any one were to publish my doctrines before me.” (98) . . . He was still anxious that his theory should be presented to the world only when every detail was buttressed by evidence, when all the questions that he knew would be raised could be countered by satisfactory answers. (98-99) But he was also worried about priority. His ideas were farther ahead, and far more detailed, than those of Wallace. But he was only human. . . (99) . . . On May 14, 1856, he noted in his personal journal: “Began by Lyell’s advice writing species sketch,” and on June 10 he told William Darwin Fox that Lyell was strongly urging him to write a preliminary essay. “This I have begun to do,” he said, “but my work will be horribly imperfect & with many mistakes so that I groan & tremble when I think of it.” Once he had begun, the prospects of a “little volume” quickly vanished. “Sometimes, “ he wrote to Fox, “I fear I shall break down, for my subject gets bigger and bigger with each month’s work.” (99)


The Science of Liberty, by Timothy Ferris (Harper-Collins Publishers, New York, NY, 2010)

The Survival of Charles Darwin, by Ronald W. Clark (Random House, New York, NY, 1984)

Darwin’s Ghost, by Steve Jones (Ballantine Books, New York, NY, 1999)

Charles Darwin- Autobiography and Letters, (Ed. by Francis Darwin, D. Appleton & co. New York, NY, 1893)

Platonism and the Invasion of Iraq

I have argued in another posting against the view that Platonism should be our model for philosophy and for should guide our thinking on important matters. But even when we allow, for the sake of argument, that Platonism has something to offer in relation to our contemporary thinking, it requires an unsustainable ‘stretch’ to see how Platonism and the “higher” knowledge, called noesis, can help people avoid bad decisions and make good decisions with regard to challenges such as the U.S. government policy in invading Iraq.

However, John Uebersax argues for the contrary view and offers to show us the way. In an essay titled “The Pathology of American Thinking: How Plato Might Have Helped Us Avoid an Iraq Debacle,” Uebersax contends that Plato’s doctrine of the four levels of knowledge is a remedy for such “pathology.”

In this article, he

“. . . aims to explain: (1) what these basic categories of knowledge are, using examples related to the Iraq war; (2) how the collective thinking that brought America to its injudicious Iraq involvement reflected the poorest kind of knowledge; and (3) how we might avoid similar situations in the future–and instead accomplish positive things–by greater attention to superior forms of knowledge.”

His proposal is that Plato’s philosophy, as expressed in the Divided Line Analogy for the four levels of knowledge, with achievement of the highest knowledge (noesis) would enable us to avoid poor policy decisions such as the invasion of Iraq.

First, he summarizes the four levels of knowledge, starting with a short discussion of the lower types of “knowledge” –

Eikasia: This Greek word literally means “picture-thinking” (from the root eikon. It’s not far from our modern word, imagination, but somewhat broader in meaning. Eikasia reflects the knowledge and thinking that derives not from objects, but their images–in particular, the images in our own minds.

Pistis is knowledge based on sense experience of real-world things and the practical skills that relate to them. Building a house is a pistis-based activity.

He says the following us about “scientific, logical” knowledge:

Dianoia corresponds to what we ordinarily mean by scientific, mathematical, and logical reasoning. It proceeds from initial hypotheses or first principles, using specified rules, to logical conclusions. It gives knowledge superior to eikasia and pistis, but has the limitation that it rests on untested and often untestable initial hypotheses

There are reasons for questioning this division of “knowledge”; but I shall defer such a discussion, except to point out that characterizing ‘scientific’ reasoning as a form of deductive inference should set off our skeptical alarm bells. Moreover, it is not at all obvious why we should agree that “…. that dianoia (i.e., scientific, logical knowledge) rests on untested, initial hypotheses.” (This is false with respect to modern scientific reasoning.)

But setting those issues aside, let us consider what he says about the highest level of knowledge and how he thinks it can apply to our modern-day problems.

First he characterizes this higher knowledge as a “mental apprehension of timeless and unchangeable entities”:

“Noesis–or as it is sometimes called, Wisdom–is knowledge of a completely different order than the other forms. It is direct mental apprehension of timeless and unchangeable entities. It applies in particular to moral and spiritual issues

Then he tells us that

“If we are to meet the present world challenges and thrive as a society then we must become a noetic or sapiential culture. Most of all this requires a mental change at the individual level. “Be transformed by the renewal of your thinking,” (Romans 12:2) St. Paul says.”

The quote from Paul and other remarks indicate that Uebersax sees this “noetic” level of knowledge in terms of religious spirituality:

“ For Plato, noesis is inseparable from a pious, devout, and virtuous life. An undevout person may be intelligent, but not wise. Our Judeo-Christian heritage agrees with Plato on this. “Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom” (Proverbs 4:7). But “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” (Psalms 111:10), where fear of the LORD here means not servile fear, but a mind directed to God and things holy–that is, a devout life. “

This is not much of a surprise, as Plato’s doctrines have been easily applied to various kinds of religions spirituality and theology throughout the centuries following Plato. However, this religiosity by Uebersax is not relevant to his claim that Plato’s doctrine regarding levels of knowledge can help us in dealing with twenty-first century dilemma.
But how exactly is this supposed to happen? First, it is not at all clear that anyone really achieves this state of noesis as an actual “mental apprehension of timeless and unchangeable entities.” People might think they do (surely religious spiritualists think they do) and Plato’s “Socrates” thought he did. But thinking does not make it so, especially when all this presupposes a very questionable metaphysical doctrine of a transcendent world of timeless, unchanging forms. So, two big problems present themselves:

1) What grounds are there for positing this transcendent reality?

2) How can human cognitive faculties access this transcendent reality?

It does not help much to assume, as Plato does, that the immortal soul can apprehend this higher reality; for this only brings up the question: what grounds are there for positing this immortal soul?

But even if we set aside these philosophical difficulties with the higher state of noesis and allow that individuals who have achieved “wisdom” can see this transcendent reality, we can ask how this phenomenon would enable us to deal with the type of political-ethical issues that Uebersax mentions.

I suppose that if a sufficient number of Socratic mystics achieved this ‘higher knowledge’ of a transcendent reality, for example, a number of such individuals who have a direct vision of the essence of justice, and were in positions of authority or policy makers, then we would avoid many of the disastrous policies and actions that our governments too often perpetrate. (Of course, this presupposes that all these guys would have the same type experience and apprehend the same “truths.” This is a very questionable presupposition.) But this is surely presents a utopian dream. Most human beings are not Socratic mystics who directly apprehend a timeless, unchanging transcendental reality (I doubt that anyone really does!). Basing our hope for better policy decisions in the future on that utopian dream seems forlorn. It is somewhat like declaring that unless we have a vision of perfect justice we cannot have even a practical idea of justice and injustice in the world; but we can and we do recognize real world injustices, and all without any mystical vision of perfect justice.

The poor foreign policy that that led to the disastrous invasion of Iraq resulted in part from a lack of knowledge; but other contributing factors were a measure of dishonesty, false beliefs (e.g., the false belief that Saddam’s Iraq was connected with the 9/11 attacks), invalid inferences, deception, and even self-deception at the highest levels of U. S. decision making. The disaster could have been avoided had our policy makers possessed sufficient, relevant knowledge regarding the actual threat (or lack of a threat) posed by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq; but it also could have been avoided had our government and military leaders been more honest about what was known and less anxious to engage in military invasion of another country. It is too much to hope that policy makers possess all knowledge necessary for making good decisions. Sometimes the best anyone can do is act on the basis of a very limited knowledge; the hope is that policy makers will gauge their action to the knowledge and reliable information they do possess.

But none of this requires that anyone adopt a Platonist view of genuine knowledge or a Platonist view of reality. Knowledge and well-grounded beliefs about the workings of the social world do not require that one adopt Plato’s four-part division of knowledge and reality, along with the claim that only the highest level, noesis, is effective in dealing with the great issues we face. In fact, John Uebersax seems to admit this point.

“While logical, scientific, and mathematical thinking alone do not produce noesis, training in these areas are, for Plato, steps in the right direction. They promote mental discipline and accustom one to seeking intellectual answers. No government could plunge the country indiscriminately into war were the populus sufficiently intelligent and attendant to the principles of logical critical thinking.”

In fact, if training in logical, scientific, and mathematical thought would prevent a government from “plung[ing] the country indiscriminately into war,” then it seems that we have a remedy for the “pathology” of thinking which our leaders suffered at the time of the Iraq war. But this does not require that we appeal to the Platonist notion of the highest knowledge, noesis.

Finally it doubtful that Uebersax’s analysis of the poor thinking and policy decision in terms of the “Divided Line Analogy” does anything to illuminate how people go wrong in their beliefs and actions.* Intellectual integrity and honesty about what we do know and what we do not know can be gotten on the basis of a common-sense philosophy emphasizing critical reason, a respect for scientific methods, and judicious use of the evidence available to us. This attitude in conjunction with a pragmatic, utilitarian ethic — which respects human dignity and human rights — would have improved the odds of avoiding foreign policy debacles like the war in Iraq.

* Even on a sympathetic reading, his claim that the Divided Line comprises the best psychological theory of human knowledge is an overstatement.

. . . . the Divided Line analogy, which comes at the end of Book 6 of the Republic. This analogy, along with the more famous Cave Allegory, arguably comprise the best psychological theory we have about the nature and variations of human knowledge.

Is Platonism the Model for Philosophy?

Platonism: … a type of metaphysical philosophy, one directed toward a transcendent reality. The rationalistic aspect: a belief in the power of thought directly to grasp transcendent realities (e.g., forms, mathematical objects); logic and mathematics are seen as providing keys to the structure of the universe. Includes belief in degrees of reality, and belief in the immortality of souls – Platonism is opposed to anything that can be called materialism; it affirms that a system of moral conceptions will reflect the nature of the universe; morality is more than merely human.

[From the Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Collier-MacMillan, 1967, vol. 6, ed. Paul Edwards]

What can we say to the claim that Plato’s philosophy characterizes the best of philosophy, or that Plato’s wisdom is “the proper domain of philosophy”? Let’s start by considering what one might mean when one makes a claim regarding the nature of philosophy.

When people claim that ‘philosophy’ is one thing as opposed to another thing they might be speaking in one of two modes:

Descriptive mode: When we try to state what the institution or discipline of philosophy is, i.e., what kinds of philosophers, philosophies, teachings, perspectives, university courses in philosophy there have been.

Prescriptive mode: When we recommend what we think philosophy should be: e.g., as when someone claims that genuine philosophy is based on the metaphysical/epistemological position indicated by Plato’s Divided Line analogy.

The Question of Platonism: Is philosophy (in general) a form of Platonism (or as Whitehead said, “a series of footnotes to Plato”)?

The Descriptive Claim:

Taken as the descriptive statement, the claim that philosophy is a form of Platonism is simply false. The work, activity or discipline of philosophy features a variety of perspectives, of which only a few can be called Platonism. Even Aristotle, a student of Plato, did not develop a philosophy that was faithful in important respects to the teachings of Plato’s Dialogues. There have been and currently are many different lines of philosophy which are very anti-Platonistic in their perspective: materialistic philosophies, Atomistic philosophies. Epicureanism, Stoicism, Modern Skepticism, Positivism, Analytical philosophies, Existentialism, … to name just a few. Some of our great figures in the history of Western philosophy, e.g., Epicurus, Spinoza, David Hume, F. Nietzsche, John Dewey, Bertrand Russell, Jean P. Sartre, and Ludwig Wittgenstein, advanced what can be called an anti-Platonistic approach to philosophical problems and issues. Only a few of the courses taught at university and college departments of philosophy can be called courses in Plato or Platonism. The majority professors of philosophy do not teach Platonism; and most likely the majority of people who practice philosophy do not identify themselves as Platonists.

In short, when considering the question, Is Philosophy a form of Platonism? most of us would answer in the negative. “No,” philosophy is not generally identifiable as a form of Platonism, nor as “a series of footnotes to Plato.” Much of philosophy that is actually practiced and taught by people can actually be seen as a counter-thesis to Platonism.

The Prescriptive Claim:

So what about the prescriptive statement? Do we have reasons for agreeing that good philosophy should be a form of Platonism? Do we have good reasons for assenting to the view that good philosophy will base itself on Plato’s Analogy of the Divided line?

When people like Whitehead and Uebersax state the case for Platonism as the key to genuine philosophy, we should understand their statements as prescriptive statements; they’re telling us what they believe philosophy should be. Admittedly, the Whitehead quotation often cited suggests a descriptive claim:

“The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”

A. N. Whitehead, Process and Reality, 1929.

As a descriptive claim, this is simply false, unless we qualify it so that “a series of footnotes to Plato” include counter arguments to Plato. But we normally don’t describe contrary philosophies as “footnotes to each other.

So, I prefer to read Whitehead as a recommendation of what he best of European philosophy should be, i.e., as a prescriptive statement. This is how I shall interpret other statements in favor of Platonism: e.g., “Plato’s wisdom is the proper domain of philosophy”; “Plato’s Divided Line Analogy is the best way to deal with epistemological and ethical issues.”
[The Divided Line Analogy is given in Plato’s Republic, at Book VI, the four stages of cognition, “Speaking through the character of Socrates, Plato divides human knowledge, and its related cognitive activities, into four categories. From poorest to best, these are: eikasia, pistis, dianoia, and noesis.”]

So what are we to make of these recommendations? If there is a case to be made for Platonism as the philosophy of choice, it is a weak case. If we concentrate only on the Divided Line Analogy, we find that it is based on a specific metaphysics and epistemology, Both Plato’s metaphysics and his theory of knowledge are very questionable, to say the least.

First, consider Plato’s metaphysics. Unless we are already committed to Platonism as a philosophy, we don’t find very good arguments supporting Plato’s other world metaphysics. The arguments in Plato’s Dialogues for the necessity of a realm of eternal, unchanging forms are not cogent or sound arguments. Much in the dialogues assumes, rather than argues for the reality of a soul, separate from the body. What scientific grounds or sound philosophical arguments are there for adopting this dualistic doctrine of human reality, that essentially we are eternal souls separate from our body? What grounds – philosophical or scientific – do we have for asserting a separate, higher reality of eternal, unchanging forms? Unless we are already inclined to accept this notion of a higher separate reality, as many spiritually inclined, religious people and some mathematicians are, we shall find little or no reason for affirming such a view of reality.

Accepting Plato’s realm of eternal forms would imply that we reject the reality of modern scientific perspective of a world of evolving animal and plant life, a world of constant, dynamic change as described by astronomy, cosmology, physics, chemistry, biology, anthropology, history, and sociology. Many of us find the case for doing that to be far from convincing. In addition, Darwinian evolution by natural selection is a direct, scientific refutation of essentialism in biology; hence, it is a direct refutation of Platonism insofar as it could apply to the biosphere.

At best, Plato’s metaphysics applies to a particular philosophy of mathematics. Many mathematicians are Platonists of sorts, but the work of mathematics does not entail a Platonist metaphysics, since there are alternative philosophies of mathematics.

Likewise, the case for Plato’s theory of knowledge is a weak one. The notion of knowledge, as embodied in the Divided Line Analogy, assumes that ‘knowledge’ can be understood as a cognitive state, that it is characterized by the object of the cognitive state, and that genuine knowledge is infallible and mathematically certain. All of these propositions concerning human knowledge are questionable, to say the least. There is much work of analytical philosophers which denies these notions. First, as Gilbert Ryle, Richard Rorty and other writers on epistemological issues have argued, knowledge cannot be adequately described as a state of mind, even when it is labeled a “cognitive state.” Briefly, this is because propositional knowledge requires that something is a fact apart from the subject’s state of mind; and knowledge identifiable as a capability (knowing how to do something) requires being able to do something, not just indulge a cognitive state of mind.

“What is knowledge? Whether or not knowledge involves belief, the distinction between knowledge and belief should not be seen as a distinction between states of mind. The truth conditions of statements about knowledge must include reference to things other than states of mind . . . …being sure is not by any means necessary to knowledge, even if in the majority of cases people who know things are also sure of them. . . There are no grounds for supposing that knowledge is a conscious activity or state, nor for supposing that knowledge and awareness are the same. …

[D.W. Hamlyn, The Theory of Knowledge, Anchor Books, 1970, p. 95]

Secondly, as the twentieth century English philosopher D.W. Hamlyn points out, the view that knowledge must be infallible and mathematically certain is based on a confusion:

It is to say that we cannot both know and be wrong. Nothing follows from this about whether what we know must be such that it is impossible to be wrong about it. . . To suppose that it does is to mistake the role that “cannot” plays in “if I know, I cannot be wrong.” In fact, “cannot” merely expresses the incompatibility between knowledge and being wrong; it does not say that the only appropriate objects of knowledge are things about which it is impossible to be wrong.

[Hamlyn, ibid, p. 12]

That my ‘knowing that X’ implies that I cannot be wrong about X follows from the correct application of the concept “knowledge.” We don’t say that we know the solution to a problem if we also admit that we could be wrong. But this does not mean that in order for our claim to knowing to be appropriate it must be infallible or mathematically certain. But according to Plato, genuine knowledge is only of the infallible:

However, historically Plato and others have equated knowledge and infallibility. Plato, at one stage, cast doubt on the view that perception provides knowledge. According to him, knowledge must be reserved for objects of a higher kind, the forms. Accordingly, knowledge and infallibility go together and anything that is not infallible is not a suitable subject for knowledge. . . . . The search for indubitable and infallible truths is therefore a common feature of traditional epistemology.

[Hamlyn, ibid, p. 13 ]

However, for many philosophers this represents a wrong turn in the history of epistemological philosophy. Accepting this ‘theory of knowledge’ would imply that we really do not have knowledge in many of the natural sciences, not to mention sociological and historical sciences. It would also imply that we really all of our beliefs and affirmations about empirical matters and matters of common sense do not qualify as knowledge. Except for those who subscribe to Platonism, most people are not prepared to admit Plato’s exaggerated notion of genuine knowledge.

Hence, the case for upholding Plato’s Divided Line Analogy as a key to understanding what philosophy should be (or should aspire to) is a weak case, given the problems with its metaphysical and epistemological presuppositions. A large number of philosophers rightfully dissent.