Monthly Archives: December 2010

Space Aliens and Moral Truth – 4

John – 4: John requests that I explain more my earlier refusal to concede that Kant discovered a moral law which an intelligent space alien would recognize:

I would be interested in some additional comments about your view (“Space Aliens and Moral Truth – 3”) that you “doubt that this alien from outer space would appeal to Kant’s moral law” and that you “have good reasons for this doubt.”

My reply-4:

John, I will try to elaborate my skepticism of the possibility that an alien society could appeal to Kant’s moral law. But I’m not sure that by doing so I’m referring to the same thing that you have in mind, since you never spelled out in detail the moral law which you think is an objective feature of the world and something that Kant discovered.

I suppose there are aspects of our moral life which can be said to be things that we discover. For example, I can imagine a society of people, maybe a hunting-and-gathering tribe, coming to ‘discover’ after decades of trial and error that cooperation among members of the tribe works better than aggression and hostile competition. So they come to ‘discover’ the value of cooperation, which eventually might lead to ‘moral rules’ like one that requires that one respect the rights of neighbors instead of stalking them and clubbing them to a bloody death. Eventually these might evolve into moral principles like the Golden Rule. So, in a sense, an anthropologist could say that they indirectly ‘discovered’ the Golden Rule.

Given that human cultures — no matter how widespread — share some similarities, we can imagine a number of different cultures ‘discovering’ the utility of cooperation, and imagine further, that this utility of cooperation evolves into a moral principle. So different cultures ‘discover’ the same type of moral principle. Could an alien, intelligent culture of a remote galaxy also discover similar rules? I suppose we could say that, if the alien culture is made up of creatures who gain by cooperating with each other, can learn to cooperate, and — hence — recognize the utility for the culture and for individuals of such cooperation, then we could imagine that under those conditions that culture would ‘discover’ something akin to our Golden Rule. (But is a just-so-story; I would not stake too much on it.)

But (and this is a big “BUT”) generally discovery is not something that happens in philosophy or is accomplished by philosophers as they work out their philosophical systems. Discovery is something done by real explorers, by scientists, by workers and tinkerers; discovery implies that there is something out there in the world to be discovered, such as a new passage to the Pacific, or a new way of powering a machine to grind grain, or the DNA molecule, or galaxies beyond the Milky Way, or the cause of a disease like Cholera, etc. Generally, artists and literary writers don’t discover things; they create imaginative works. Shakespeare did not discover Hamlet; he wrote it. Likewise with Cervantes and his Don Quijote, Mozart and his 39th Symphony, Michelangelo and his David. An alien, intelligent far-off in another Galaxy might have artists and writers equal or better than those of Earth; but it the chances of an alien Shakespeare (with the works of Shakespeare) or an alien ‘twin’ to any of our great artists, poets, composers — are so remote as to make it a virtual impossibility. However, their scientists (natural sciences) and mathematicians would probably make the same discoveries that ours have made, although a Galileo, Newton, Niels Bohr, or Einstein would not be found, as such, in that alien world.

What can we say about a philosopher like Immanuel Kant (or Plato)? If you would not be surprised to find that the alien culture, in-a-remote-galaxy society might ‘discover’ the moral laws which Kant wrote about, you must assume that these laws were things that could be discovered (here by Kant and in the alien society by some individual who happened upon them in some way — probably not the same way that Kant discovered them).

So I ask, does it really make sense to say that moral law was discovered by Kant? I have never thought so. Kant’s work, like the work of most philosophers, is more akin to the work of creative artists than it is to the inquiry and discovery of scientists, explorers, inventors (who discover new ways of doing things). Yes some philosophers carry out types of inquiry in their work; this is especially true with modern philosophers. But generally traditional philosophers developed systems and imaginative perspectives (on any number of topics) which they offered as answers or solutions to certain questions and problems. In the area of ethics and moral philosophy, it is fairly obvious that — except for analytical philosophy and meta-ethics — philosophers develop certain ‘theories’ on matters of value, not fact, which they elaborate and defend. But there is no discovery taking place in the sense of discovering objective moral truth. I have never found reason for thinking that Plato or Kant discovered those famous features of their philosophies; they created them. Was Kant’s categorical imperative sitting out there somewhere waiting to be discovered? Were the forms subsisting somewhere in the realm of the eternal waiting for Plato to discover them? I hardly think so.

I’m not sure what exactly you would advance as that moral law which Kant discovered; but I’ll assume for now that you mean the categorical imperative.

One version of the Categorical Imperative reminds us of the Golden Rule: Act so that you treat everyone as an end in themselves, and never as a means only. This could be a version of those rules calling for cooperation and recognition of the rights/dignity of fellow humans, which I said can be said to be ‘discovered’ by a society in certain circumstances. But the problem with arguing that Kant may have discovered the categorical imperative in this version is that a rule like that in important respects was ‘discovered’ by different peoples long before Kant developed his philosophy. Can the other version of the Categorical Imperative, ‘universalizability’ (Act so that the maxim of your action could be a universal law) be the moral law that Kant discovered? And would it be something that an alien other-galaxy civilization also discover it? Here I am very doubtful that this is tenable, even in a thought experiment. This is not much of a moral law. As many basic texts in ethical philosophy point out, this law does little or nothing to help us distinguish moral action from that which is not. It is neither a sufficient nor a necessary condition for morally good action; and many actions which are clearly absent of moral good can satisfy the imperative. I hardly think that this categorical imperative would be an example of a moral rule that diverse people ‘discover,’ even the weak sense of “discovery” used above.

Hence, because it is not plausible that an alien society would discover Kant’s moral law, it is not tenable that such a culture would appeal to them. Should that marvelous thing really turn out to be the case, I would be stunned beyond anything words could express!

(I’m not sure this clarifies anything. Maybe I’m just adding to the confusion. If so, I consider myself as working the grand tradition of much of philosophy.)

Space Aliens and Moral Truth – 3

John sets the scene for his argument for objective Moral Truth – 3

Juan, indulge me in a brief fantasy requiring that you imagine the following:

(1) The Nazis won the war, used atomic weapons to conquer the rest of the world, and imposed a rigid set of laws which included the death penalty for Jews, homosexuals, outspoken philosophers, and a few other pesky groups.

(2) A highly intelligent space visitor (not human, but very evolved) observed the Earth and these quaint traits. In his report to his superiors he must check off the level of moral development of the Earth’s culture. The scale was an advanced variation of Kohlberg’s scale, ranking from low, to various degrees of medium, high, or Ideal. What would be an intelligent basis for that highest level of evaluation? Is there a rational foundation for a trans-cultural or even a trans-species moral code? Does Kant’s Moral Law qualify for that role?

I propose that there is a correct point of view about ideal conduct, and that Plato was a bold explorer who showed the path to later thinkers like Kant who discovered (NB, not invented) the Moral Law. Yes, we find the Golden Rule present in some early human cultures, and as an ideal it was a remarkable advance for civilization, but it was not formulated with the depth of thought given to it by Kant. My imagination allows me to think that there will be advances and developments in the future on some of Kant’s insights, but he had the correct idea of the Moral Law. What I read (and perhaps it is an inaccurate understanding) in your words is that there isn’t much sense in saying that there is a correct point of view independent of human critters. Would you continue to maintain that position if we do discover and have contact with more advanced species in the future, in a galaxy not too far away? Would it surprise you if the most advanced species held a belief in Kant’s Moral Law?

My reply-3:

John, you pose a number questions some of which I may not be able to answer (you really have me up against the wall, right?); but I’ll try to deal with them. I might just reject some of them as based on faulty assumptions, but let’s see what we can do with them.

I don’t have any way of knowing what the intelligent space visitor would say about the situation you outline, since I have no idea what kind of morality his kind would have evolved. Maybe he would not see any moral implication in rigid Nazi laws imposed on minorities. But you assume that he would have some moral beliefs similar to ours and would rank cultures in terms of moral development. Given this assumption and allowing that our alien visitor recognized moral values similar to ours, I imagine that he would rank the moral situation as a very bad one; but I haven’t the least idea how to answer your questions (What would be an intelligent basis for that highest level of evaluation? Is there a rational foundation for a trans-cultural or even a trans-species moral code?). Our space visitor might have some intelligent basis and a rational foundation for his moral judgments; but how can I say? I doubt that this alien space would appeal to Kant’s moral law. (I have good reasons for this doubt, but that would take us too far afield at this time.)

A real world situation similar to the imagined one you present actually can be found in our history: Western Nations’ treatment of the new world natives. Their cultures, religions, moral beliefs and practices were destroyed by the European invaders. Then the European invaders justified this murder and destruction on the basis of a perceived moral-religious superiority. The survivors were treated badly, their needs and interests ignored or even rejected; and this was quite acceptable from the Western point of view, some of which was supported and defended by Western philosophers as morally acceptable. How would an intelligent, morally developed visitor rate that moral situation? I submit that he would give Western humans a very low rating. And he would probably have an intelligent, rational basis for his judgment — not Kant’s moral law and surely not a vision of Plato’s form of the good! Maybe it would simply be a judgment rooted in what experience teaches regarding the optimum development of sentient, intelligent creatures: respect for the lives and dignity of other sentient, intelligent creatures. Who knows?

Since I’m not as impressed by Kant’s moral theory as you are (there are many problems when one tries to apply his “moral law” to real world moral situations), I don’t accept your statement as the Golden Rule was not developed with the “depth of thought” that Kant’s moral law enjoys. How can you say what “depth of thought” went into the development and application of the Golden Rule? In terms of an expression of the value of human justice, the Golden Rule (stated in negative terms) is a far better statement than Kant’s law, especially when we consider his claim that violation of the law implies a contradiction, and thus implies that immorality always involves a contradiction. We have no reason for holding that morality and rationality always work together this way.

The notion that there’s a “correct point of view (regarding morality) independent of all critters” strikes me as a hangover from the idea that God is the ground for moral good and the idea of moral knowledge as that which would be manifested in God’s eye-view of the Truth. This is that age-old hunger for a transcendent basis for morality. There are many problems with this perspective of which I’ll mention only two:
1) we have absolutely no basis for thinking that there really is any such thing (neither Kant’s moral law nor Plato’s form of the good will do).
2) Even if you found such transcendent reality, it is hard to see what relevance it would have on human moral beliefs, moral judgment, and moral behavior.

Moral good is not a form of knowledge, not even a putative knowledge of a transcendent moral reality. A good part of what we understand by “moral good” is manifested in the certain behavior and the development of certain character; and the expression of certain values and judgment. It is manifested in the context of not knowing some putative transcendent truth. There are a number (probably a large number) of morally good people in many places; but there is no evidence that anyone really has knowledge of some transcendent moral truth. Some people (including some philosophers) believe they have this type of knowledge and claim they do; but this is just what they claim; it is not anything they can make good.

Speculation as to the possibility that a morally superior culture of a remote galaxy would have discovered Kant’s moral law might have some value as a thought experiment. Yes, I would be shocked if that were so; since I don’t think that Kant’s law is something that can ever be discovered. I seriously doubt that Kant discovered anything. He came up with a ‘theory’ of morality or a way of thinking about morality. This has been given a place of honor in Western philosophy; he had some good insights on a few aspects of morality. But I don’t agree with your characterization of him or of Plato as bold explorers and the implied suggestion that they discovered something of high importance. They were just humans trying to work out some problems and coming up with their ‘solutions.’ But in both cases, their so-called solutions have limited value.

Genocide, Nazi ‘morality’ and Moral Truth 1-2

Recently I had an interesting three-part correspondence with a philosopher (call him “John”) who argues that morality, as developed by Kantian ethics, is an objective reality. Here I present the first set of correspondence. Parts 2 and 3 are titled “Space Aliens and Moral Truth – 2″ and “Space Aliens and Moral Truth – 3.”

John started things rolling by posing three questions, which I tried to answer as well as I could.

John – 1: his request:

A few questions for our group to consider, as we ponder if there is a correct point of view about ethical matters. The answers given may help us understand each other.

(1) Is genocide morally wrong?

(2) If so, why?

(3) What makes you think so?

My first reply:

John, I’m not sure what type of answers you seek. “A correct point of view” about ethical matters is somewhat vague. Are you suggesting that we have moral knowledge? Are you suggesting that there’s a correct theory of ethics? Or are you merely suggesting that we hold certain moral beliefs and apply certain moral values which we hold unconditionally? Depending on what we understand by “correct point of view,” my pondering would adjust accordingly.

Your questions:
(1) Is genocide morally wrong? –

Yes, of course. If genocide were not morally wrong, what would be morally wrong?

(2) If so, why? –

What are my reasons? Well, try these: the Golden Rule: Don’t do to others (or other groups) what you would not want done to you (or to your group). In addition, try this one: As a conscientious human being I recognize that others are human much like me, with similar needs, interests, desires, and right to live. Given this working ‘principle,’ I find the mass killing of other humans to be not just morally wrong, but a criminally monstrous thing to do.

(3) What makes you think so?

Do you mean, what causes me to take such a position? What sources and path led me to this type of thinking? – Obviously, for most of us it would be our training and education. Parents, family, teachers, friends, our church, synagogue or mosque, our experiences etc. etc. brought us to have such believes and behave accordingly. In some very rare cases, reading or study of philosophy. In less rare cases, reading and study of literature, history, and maybe even works in the sciences.

John -2

Your answers give me the impression that you do at present think that genocide is morally wrong, but the reasons for your belief indicate that if your training had been different you can imagine not holding that view. This position might be supported by the evidence that many Germans were willing to practice genocide during WW II. Do you believe that their view was just as correct as your present view about this issue, or is there no correct point of view? Let me put this in a different form: Is genocide REALLY wrong, or is that just the opinion you presently hold because of your training? If it is not just the result of conditioning, then what other source can you find to support the notion that genocide is
My second reply:

John, what are the limits when we start playing the game of imagining what one would think or how one would behave had he been raised in a completely different environment and with completely different training-conditioning? You asked how I came to believe that genocide is immoral and I tried to give an honest answer. When we discuss the road we took to where we are, are we also discussing the reasons for an against our being there? I don’t think so. My answer to your second question should have indicated that if anything is morally wrong without qualification, it is genocide. I think the same about torture and abuse of children. Can I imagine being raised in a culture in which ‘I’ would think otherwise? Well, I suppose we can imagine many things. But I don’t know what the implications for ethics are. I’m not even sure you can say that the individual raised in a completely different culture and under completely different conditions would be the same individual. What are the limits of our imagination?

I’m not sure how much you’re pinning on the proposition: Genocide is really wrong. I surely think that genocide is wrong without qualification. The rule against genocide would seem to be one of those moral absolutes that philosophers talk about.

No, I don’t believe that those Germans (mostly Nazi) who believed that genocide was acceptable, even commendable, were correct. Simply stated, they denied that the victims of genocide (mainly the Jews) had a right to life. Their actions were a complete rejection of moral values and principles that I try to uphold. One could also build Utilitarian arguments for the claim that they were wrong. The fact that their training and conditioning led them to think as they did, different from the way my training and conditioning led me, does not imply that we must become extreme relativists and admit that —- under certain circumstances —- genocide would be morally acceptable. At least this is true if we’re still talking about “human circumstances.” But I don’t know the rules of the game which asks that we imagine how the world would have differed under a completely different set of conditions.

You also suggest a false dichotomy when you ask ” Is genocide REALLY wrong, or is that just the opinion you presently hold because of your training?” If you’re suggesting that the meaning of “really wrong” requires something like Kant’s categorical imperative or one of Plato’s forms and the philosophical idea that there are points of moral reality (independent of what any human society might hold) and unquestionable moral knowledge, then I would reject your notion of something being “really wrong in moral terms.” But this would not imply that I hold to a subjectivist, extreme relativism that one’s rejection of genocide as morally acceptable is just the opinion I happen to hold because of my training.

My history, conditioning, and training may explain how I came to my moral beliefs. There are no alternative “sources.” But the issue of justification of those beliefs turns our attention to the moral values and the principles (e.g. The Golden Rule) I try to apply. Here we talk about ethics, moral philosophy and the reasoning (arguments) that one can bring to bear.

I see absolutely no problem with the judgment that genocide is really wrong and the naturalist view that our morality is human-based in every respect; i.e., with the view that one can hold to some unconditional moral imperatives (e.g. contra genocide, contra child torture) and yet hold that our moral values emerge from our nature as evolved beings who invented culture, including moral culture. But saying more on this would take us into another story.

Is Philosophy a Footnote to Plato?

Spanos states his case:

In your essay, “Is Platonism the model for philosophy?” (in this blog) you put “the question of Platonism”: Is philosophy (in general) a form of Platonism (or as Whitehead said, “a series of footnotes to Plato”)? You also quoted Whitehead’s famous statement in full:

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

You overlooked a few things. First, a characterization of the European philosophical tradition is not necessarily a characterization of philosophy in general. Second, footnotes to Plato do not have to reflect agreement with Plato’s philosophy. Finally, the “safest general characterization” is not necessarily a completely safe general characterization. These oversights could lead to a straw man argument against Whitehead.

I’m not sure what exactly Whitehead had in mind. According to my best guess, he was thinking that the central theme running through the history of European philosophy from Plato to the present is realism. Most European philosophers have assumed one form or another of realism. In other words, they have assumed that reality has a structure that can be captured in language or represented in terms of the categories that form the basic structural units of language. But there have always been dissenters to this view, and it was the central issue throughout the history of medieval philosophy. Duns Scotus was a particularly noteworthy defender of realism, while William of Occam was an extremely influential dissenter. The twentieth century debate between Einstein and Bohr over the interpretation of quantum experiments is one of those footnotes to Plato in which Einstein insisted on a realist position while Bohr took a rather ambiguous position that smacked of anti-realism (e.g. instrumentalism or pragmatism). At the turn of the century, of course, anti-realism was well represented by Richard Rorty and his fellow post-modernists. Meanwhile, realists were spread out over a range that included both transcendental and materialist versions.

My reply:

I also ask: What exactly did Whitehead mean by his statement that we can characterize European philosophy as a series of footnotes to Plato? To me this surely suggests that the old metaphysician, Whitehead, was asserting that we can look at European philosophy as a continuation of Plato’s philosophy. After all, what is a mere footnote to the main thesis? It is just a footnote and does not question or reject the main thesis. So now ask yourself, can we characterize the philosophies of the many ‘philosophers’ who are found in the European stream of philosophy as just elaborations on Plato’s philosophy? I submit that the obvious answer is a negative one. Not even the work Plato’s student, Aristotle, who went on to develop his own philosophy, can meaningfully be characterized as a mere footnote to Plato. The same can be said for a large set of philosophers in the European stream.

The fact that the issue of ‘realism’ (e.g. the issue of the status of universals) is an issue that occupied many of those philosophers does not show that their work is just a “footnote to Plato” or a continuation of Platonism. As I tried to show you in an earlier email, and as you seem to have forgotten, there’s much more to Platonism that just preoccupation with the metaphysical issue of ‘realism.’ Affirming that ” that reality has a structure that can be captured in language or represented in terms of the categories that form the basic structural units of language” does not make one a Platonist and does not affirm Plato’s philosophy. At most it shows one point of similarity in very different philosophies.

At best, Whitehead’s famous remark can be taken as a figurative way of saying that many philosophers in the European tradition proceed in somewhat of a spirit of Plato. But his figurative language is surely more misleading than insightful, even when taken as a metaphor.
Spanos comes back:

This is a problem in hermeneutics! A key principle of hermeneutics is the principle of charity. It applies to situations where we must choose between different possible interpretations of a text. It requires that we choose the interpretation that seems most reasonable or most defensible. You seem to me to have chosen an interpretation that is not very reasonable and not very defensible. We should always try to give the writer we are interpreting as much credit as we can within the constraints of the language he or she uses.

My reply:
Principle of charity, huh? Just how charitable do we have to be? Carried far enough, the principle of charity would excuse any foolishness that a writer asserts, especially when the writer is a respected professor of philosophy. And your qualifier surely calls for clarification: “as much credit as we can within the constraints of the language he chose to use.” Exactly how do you determine these “constraints” if you’re not to read what is written as meaning what is written, but go out looking for a charitable interpretation to rescue those writers you favor?

Apparently you were applying this principle of charity when you interpret Whitehead’s remark on “philosophy as a footnote to Plato” as just referring to the fact that a number (and only a minority, really) of European philosophers have been preoccupied with the problem of ‘realism’ (“realism” in the sense that universals and general categories have real, independent existence). You might think this is just the principle of charity (oh, that grand “hermeneutics”!) applied. But it strikes me — as I’m sure it strikes many people — as a case of reading into the text what you want to find there. This is similar to a case of the President’s press secretary telling reporters what the President really meant to say when he committed some blooper or other.

Look man, if I tell you that ‘B’ is just a footnote to ‘A’, I’m surely implying that at best ‘B’ is just commentary or clarification of the main thesis ‘A’; if one is using these words in a figurative sense to say something about how we who indulge in the activity of philosophy are in a sense children of Plato, then one should signal more clearly that this figurative language is not to taken too seriously. But this special interpretation would be just that, a special interpretation. It flies in the face of a fact of our linguistic behavior: we use such expression to elevate the main thesis ‘A’ at the expense of ‘B’.

At any rate, even on your charitable interpretation of the Whitehead statement (philosophers are children of Plato), there are great problems with the amended statement about footnotes and Plato; and it is an amended statement, not a case of charitable interpretation at all.

(When in doubt invoke the principles of textual interpretation and that ugly word, “hermeneutics.”)

Do we perceive real things, or just our representations of them?

First Part: Spanos presents his case challenging the naïve view that we perceive real things as they really are.

I’ll put my questions in the context of a story told by Leonard Mlodinow and Stephen Hawking in “The Grand Design“:

A FEW YEARS AGO the city council of Monza, Italy, barred pet owners from keeping goldfish in curved goldfish bowls. The measure’s sponsor explained the measure in part by saying that it is cruel to keep a fish in a bowl with curved sides because, gazing out, the fish would have a distorted view of reality.

This raises an interesting question. Do the curved sides of the bowl distort the fishes’ view of reality? Would they, under normal circumstances, have an undistorted view of reality? The Mlodinow/Hawking response to this is equally interesting. They chide the sponsors of the measure for assuming that our own view of reality is undistorted.

But how do we know we have the true, undistorted picture of reality? Might not we ourselves also be inside some big goldfish bowl and have our vision distorted by an enormous lens? The goldfish’s picture of reality is different from ours, but can we be sure it is less real?

The point made by Mlodinow and Hawking is that it doesn’t make any practical difference to the fish whether the bowl is curved or straight. In either case they adapt their responses to appearances. What does make a difference is whether their responses work. In order to make their responses work, they do not need a true, undistorted picture of reality. All they need is a reliably consistent picture of reality. And evolution has given them the ability to produce such a picture. Evolution has even given them the ability to adapt their responses to changes in appearances such as would be caused by putting them in a fish bowl with curved sides.

In the light of such considerations, I’m not sure how to interpret what some people claim: namely that there is no distortion of reality taking place. For example, a colleague argued that

“if we (or other creatures) didn’t actually perceive objects (‘things’ to use your term) as they really are, we would not have survived this long in the evolutionary process. Yes, misperceptions (faulty interpretations) often occur but rarely as often as you seem to imply in the above quote. Our perceptions rarely lie to us.”

Spanos continues: Must we assume that we wouldn’t be able to survive without a true, undistorted picture of reality? If fish can survive without it, why can’t we? It’s true that our perceptions rarely lie to us. But what do they tell us? Do they tell us what reality really is, or do they only tell us whether the current situation is one that requires a particular kind of response? Perhaps the lie, if there really is one, is the lie we tell ourselves when we assume that we have a true, undistorted picture of reality.

But it’s not a lie if we only mean that we have a generally true, undistorted picture of empirical reality. (By “empirical reality” I mean “the way things appear to us.”) It’s only a lie if we mean that we have a true, undistorted picture of transcendental reality. Here is Kant’s definition of “transcendental.”

“certain of our cognitions rise completely above the sphere of all possible experience, and by means of conceptions to which there exists in the whole of experience no corresponding object, seem to extend the range of our judgments beyond its bounds. And just in this transcendental or supersensible sphere, where experience affords us neither instruction nor guidance, lie the investigations of reason, which on account of their importance, we consider far preferable to, and as having a far more elevated aim, than all that the understanding can achieve within the realm of sensuous phenomena.”

Prominent among these cognitions that “rise completely above all possible experience” are the concepts of reality and truth. We feel the pressure of these cognitions whenever we are aware of our own fallibility. I don’t think fish have these cognitions, and it is a mystery why we have them.

Second Part: My slightly annoyed reply:

You want for us to accept the proposition that we can talk about a “true, undistorted picture of transcendental reality,” which is different from “empirical reality” and which we don’t experience at all? The true, objective reality is not something we perceive or with which we can interact with it. But is this really what Kant holds? With Kant it is never clear, for he seems to say that “transcendental reality” is the “investigation of reason.” Assuming this is human reason, does he allow that humans have “rational access” to this “transcendental realm?

Moreover, there’s ambiguity in the description of “empirical reality.” On the one hand, Kant seems to admit that reality that we ordinarily, naturally experience (the reality explored by the sciences); we are told that this is “reality as it appears to us.” But reality as it appears to me does not imply that my perception fails to inform me about the real world. For although reality-as-it-appears-to-me might differ a bit from things-as-they- really-are, it can be corrected by scientific investigation, by careful analysis and relevant investigations, by corrective lenses (i.e., eyeglasses), etc.; this gives us a distinction between “reality as it appears to us” and “a corrected version (or reality at a different level of analysis) of reality.” Both are accessible to human experience, insofar as we allow that experience to be ‘extended’ by the instruments of science, rational inquiry and analysis, technology, and so on. This common-sense distinction has nothing to do with the distinction between the world accessible to human inquiry and a ‘transcendental reality.’

At any rate, all this talk of “transcendental reality” distinct from “empirical reality” (the reality investigated by science and experienced by humans) is suspect, to say the least, unless you happen to be a Kantian or believer in transcendence of some kind.

Here’s what Richard Rorty writes concerning this distinction between “empirical reality” and “transcendental reality.”

The antirepresentationalism common to Putnam and Davidson insists, by contrast, that the notion of “theory-independent and language-independent matter-of-factual relationships” begs all the questions at issue. For this notion brings back the very representationalist picture from which we need to escape. With William James, both philosophers refuse to contrast the world with what the world is known as, since such a contrast suggests that we have somehow done what Nagel calls “climbing out of our own minds.” They do not accept the Cartesian-Kantian picture presupposed by the idea of “our minds” or “our language” as an “inside” which can be contrasted to something (perhaps something very different) “outside.” From a Darwinian point of view, there is simply no way to give sense to the idea of our minds or language as systematically out of phase with what lies beyond our skins.

I also have great trouble accepting the claim by some people that they can “climb out of their minds” to the realm of the transcendent (whether this is a philosophical, metaphysical, or mystical claim); hence, I stand with the thinking of Richard Rorty, John Dewey, William James, Hilary Putnam and Donald Davidson on this issue.

The fish-bowl analogy cited by Spanos (gotten from Hawking-Mlodinow book) is interesting, but misleading insofar as it perpetuates the inside-outside model of human experience: we are ‘inside’ looking through a lense (or window, as Spanos suggested in a previous discussion) which distorts the real nature of the ‘outside.’ There is not much of a compelling argument for this model. And the fish-bowl analogy does not offer much of a new insight to this age-old issue.

(But maybe I’m just blind and need those corrective lenses that Dr. Kant provides.)

“In God We Trust” – Really?

According to a December 6, 2010 Press Release by Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU) , members of the Congressional Prayer Caucus have criticized President Barack Obama for telling an audience in Indonesia last month that the phrase “E Pluribus Unum” is a good summary of the American experience.

The Prayer Caucus, led by U.S. Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.), wrote to Obama complaining that he called “E Pluribus Unum” the national motto during a Nov. 10 speech at a university in Jakarta.

The national motto, the caucus insists, is actually “In God We Trust.”

AU pointed out that “E Pluribus Unum” appears on the Great Seal of the United States, which was codified in 1782, and the phrase is still used on coinage. In citing it, Obama was trying to make the point that even though Americans are of diverse backgrounds, they have joined together as one nation.

Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and state was quoted as saying:

“This is one of the silliest manufactured controversies I’ve ever seen, and I would advise the president to deal with it by tossing the caucus’ letter into the nearest wastebasket.”


Yes, the Prayer Caucus’ letter is a waste of time and should be thrown in the trash bin. But we can imagine some other interesting responses that we might make to U.S. Rep. Randy Forbes and his Prayer Caucus. We could ask exactly what do they understand by the motto “In God We Trust.” If I trust in God, do I let things work their own way instead of working to see to it that things get done right? Does this mean that the U.S. should really act on the belief that God takes care of everything? Does it mean that we can sit back and rely on God? Does this mean that we no longer need to spend billions upon billions on military defense of our nation? In God we Trust! Does this mean that the U.S. should no longer take on foreign projects, such as our wars on terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan? Trust that God will take care of problems there too! Does it mean that members of Congress will no longer work to protect the interests of their wealthy sponsors, since God will care them too? Does it mean that our country does not need to concern itself with diminishing natural resources, with industrial damage to the environment, and with the prospect of Global warming? Trust in God; and God takes care of everything.
Suppose that two people are working hard to alleviate suffering. One trusts in God and the other, an agnostic, does not. But they choose to remain silent about their philosophies; and the believer has no time to pray. How could we identify the trust-in-God person? Tell us, Representative Forbes, how would we distinguish one from the other. And what difference to could it possibly make to their work to alleviate suffering?

Doubts about Mysticism as basis for Knowledge, Morality, or Spirituality

(A philosophical acquaintance, Pablo, and I had a discussion touching on mysticism and morality. He had been complaining that secular humanism is too quick to dismiss mysticism as a likely source of knowledge and value.)

Pablo: (started by relating a few lines by Richard Jefferies in which the atheistic poet describes a mystical experience):
“…there is an existence, a something higher than soul – higher, better, and more perfect than deity. Earnestly I pray to find this something better than a god. There is something superior, higher, more good. . ..”

Moi: It should not surprise us that an atheist expresses such feelings if we keep in mind that, just as there are many different kinds of theists and believers, there are also many different kinds of atheists. Among non-believers there are some who have mystical experiences and desire to make the transcendental leap to the “other world,” while rejecting the prevailing or popular images of the deity. The significant philosophical question is: What are we to make of these experiences and the associated longing for the ‘transcendental’?

Pablo: “….mysticism can be best understood and defined by a simple tabulation of characteristics commonly associated with mystical experiences. Often called an analytic definition….”
(He lists several characteristics that purport to define mysticism. Each is followed by my remarks and questions.)

Pablo: Mysticism is characterized by an Ineffability – The inability to express in human words or concepts.

Moi: Does this refer to the great difficulty people have when they try to describe the mystical experience? Does this mean that ordinary language and intuitive concepts fail completely when a mystic tries to describe the experience? Given the great amount of mystical literature available, apparently many mystics have had much to say about their experiences; they must be capable of describing something. Does this disqualify their experiences as mystical experiences?

Pablo: Next there is a cognitive (noetic) quality which supplies us with some non-scientific information about some part (or all) of reality.

Moi: Of course, this is the mystic’s subjective feeling that the experience discloses something about reality or his feeling that he is immediately aware of some indescribable reality. We cannot simply define the experience as actually supplying the mystic with “non-scientific information about some part of reality.” This would simply beg the philosophical question regarding the nature of these experiences.

Pablo: A third characteristic is the experience of Oneness with the world, which eliminates the thought or feeling that we are distinct from the rest of the world; we are one with the object of our thought.

Moi: Again, as with the previous characteristic, we should note that this is the mystic’s feeling or experience that he is one with the object of the experience. Surely, the definition cannot simply affirm that the mystic actually is one with the object of his thought. Furthermore, some mystics have mystical experiences that do not involve this feeling of oneness with all reality. Are such experiences to be rejected as being mystical experiences?

Pablo: Mystical experiences have some natural or supernatural referent. There is always some object or referent of our mystical state which could be Nature, God (or the Godhead), Being (Existence).

Moi: I am very suspicious of the assertion that these experiences always have some object or referent, natural or supernatural. This implies that there is more here than just an extraordinary experience, that it is an experience of something which is real. Of course, the analogy is with perceptual experience, which generally is experience of something in the objective world. But this analogy is very misleading here.

(I’ll accept Pablo’s characteristics of mystical experiences as a working definition of mysticism. But this is just a way of getting the discussion started; at this point the concept of ‘mysticism’ is still very much at issue, since our “definition” raises as many questions as it answers.

Pablo then proceeded to state that “…these experiences have often become the basis for a strong moral code most commonly absorbed by the religion of the cultural milieu.”

Moi: I am very puzzled by this claim: mystical experiences (of the sort identified by our stated characteristics) are the basis for a moral code(?). This cries out for explanation. Do we have some clear examples from history? Which moral codes? Which mystics? The Jewish Bible tells us that Moses had some sort of experience on the mountain and came down with the stone tablets listing the Ten Commandments. Did he have a mystical experience? What evidence is there for thinking he had a mystical experience? The Jewish Scripture tells of the Hebrew prophets experienced visions, dreams, communications with Yahweh. They were great moral leaders and moral teachers for the Hebrews. Did they have mystical experiences of the sort defined above, and did the experience form the basis for their moral codes? Again, what grounds do we have for such an interpretation? (Walter Kaufmann argues that the prophets had experiences of inspiration, rather than mystical experiences.) Of course, a famous religious experience in Christian history is Paul’s conversion experience on the road to Damascus, which resulted in his becoming the great missionary and organizer for early Christianity. But I doubt that his experience would count as a mystical experience as defined above. Furthermore, there is no reason for thinking that his experience was the basis for a strong moral code. It became the basis for Paul’s concept of faith in the resurrected Christ, the highest imperatives for Christian faith; but not in any clear sense a strong moral code.

Pablo: continues: “….some scholars have thought the mystical elements of life the most important aspect of the spiritual life, a view I share.”

Moi: Much here needs clarification. What are the “mystical elements of life”? Are you talking about a life that includes mystical experiences? Or do you mean simply a mystical way of looking at life, one that involves mystical ideas and values: the oneness of reality, the insignificance of material, corporeal existence, and such? Hopefully, you’re not contending that in order to have a genuine spiritual life one must be a mystic. This simply would eliminate too many people from ‘spiritual life,’ people who are (were) not mystics but were excellent in other “spiritual ways.”

Referring to the object of the mystical experience, Pablo mentioned “the Godhead, the Immanent God, the God within

Moi: Can we non-mystics really make any sense of these notions? As with the notion of the subject’s identification with God, I doubt that anyone really knows what they’re talking about when they mention such notions as the ‘Godhead’ or the ‘God within.’ Here we really are blind men looking for a black cat in a darkened room.

Pablo: (some additional comments): “Moses and some of the early prophets may have been mystically inclined (and maybe even Jesus himself)”

Moi: Again we need some explanation. What is it to be mystically inclined? Is it to have mystical experiences? Certainly these Biblical figures had religious experiences of some kind, but I don’t have any evidence for saying they had mystical experiences of the kind defined above.

Pablo: (After noting that mysticism is more prevalent and more accepted in Asian cultures than in the western cultures) “Unfortunately, we don’t find much support for mysticism today in any aspects of our culture. Many think mysticism the antithesis of the methodology and results of science. Since mysticism is a more intuitive, subjective, personal and intimate human experience, it has been shunned by scientists in general as a way of getting at the truth. And, perhaps, there is some justification for this, since the scientific method …. would be inconsistent with the noetic (cognitive) claims of mysticism.”

Moi: Pablo reluctantly concedes that perhaps there may be some justification for scientists’ rejection of mysticism as a source of knowledge. But our problem is not simply that there is inconsistency between the methods of science and the claims of the mystic. Our problem is that, if you grant epistemic legitimacy to the claims of the mystics, you admit a purely subjective experience as a basis for knowledge of a reality not accessible to ordinary experience, not subject to scientific investigation or to rational inquiry. When the subjective experience of the mystic is the sole criterion for “knowledge,” you open the gates and let in a wild, woolly and crazy world. How many different kinds of “mystical truths” and “mystical realities” would we have to accept?

Pablo then conceded that perhaps mysticism does not give us new knowledge about the external, natural world but gives us knowledge “..about morality; how we ought to be and behave in this world. As the philosopher Theodore Webb has said: “Mysticism is not a rejection of science, but a transcendence of it.” There need be no contradiction here since they appear to deal with different aspects of our existence.” (* My italicizing of the text, not Pablo’s or Webb’s.)

Moi: These comments provoke more questions and critical rejoinders. How do mystical experiences yield knowledge of morality? For example, are there any clear cases in which a mystical experience or the counsel of a mystic (based on his mystical experience) helped anyone to resolve a moral dilemma? Have mystics been models of high moral behavior? The notion of mysticism transcending science is very problematic, at best a suggestive figure of speech. But what does it really mean?

Other questions to be addressed to Pablo:

What about naturalistic explanations of the mystical experience? Would such explanation show that mystical experiences are not anything special or likely sources for extra-ordinary knowledge?

What do we say about religious mystics who claim that their experience is “proof” or “evidence” for specific religious doctrine? For example, proof of the trinity, or the intercession of the Virgin Mary, and so on.

Do we have reasons for thinking that only people of high morality have mystical experiences? Aren’t there mystics who are not good moral models?

The emotional make-up of the person seems significant in bringing about a mystical experience: and historically and currently individuals and organized groups use different kinds of discipline, exercises, even deprivation to induce mystical experiences; furthermore, mystical experiences can be drug-induced. How do these facts affect the claim that mystical experiences are special and spiritually important?

Isn’t it true that each mystic brings to his experience beliefs and cultural/religious conditioning held prior to the experience, and interprets his experience accordingly? (As Walter Kaufmann says: “Suzuki does not have the same experience as Saint Teresa”)

Isn’t it true that non-mystics are totally dependent on what the mystic says about his experience, i.e., the way he interprets or describes his experiences? Hence, non-mystics are limited to hear-say evidence for their ideas of the “mystical experience.”