Author Archives: jbernal

Nietzsche and Secular Humanism

When we first come to Nietzsche’s writings we’re likely to see him as an ally of secular thinking.  He  rejects divinity, traditional religion, and the metaphysical philosophies allied with religious theism.  And, in his early work,  HUMAN, ALL TOO HUMAN, he praises what we could call the scientific method that enables humans to get at some truth regarding the natural and human world.  In short, there’s plenty in Nietzsche’s work that conforms to secular thinking on issues like the validity of religious truth (see section “The Religious Life” in HUMAN, ALL TOO HUMAN)  and the nature of human existence.  After all, Nietzsche is famous for announcing the “death of God,” and his very blunt rejection of Christianity and religious-based morality in his book, The Antichrist.

However, when we look a little deeper into Nietzsche’s works, starting with Human, All Too Human,  we  might question  his status as a precursor of secular humanism in the true sense of that phrase, “precursor of secular humanism.”  Why would I say that?  And why would a  Nietzsche scholar like Richard Schacht state the following regarding the spirit of the investigation that Nietzsche expresses in HUMAN, ALL TOO HUMAN?   “…the passion that drives it is not only that of an honesty that will tolerate no nonsense or groundless wishful thinking, but also of a desperate search for enough to work with and ways of doing so to sustain ourselves despite all.  To call this ‘secular humanism’ would be to sell it short; for while Nietzsche’s outlook is radically secular, he is far from taking humanity,  either in general or as embodied in each and every one of us, to be the locus of meaning and value.”

Before we try to say what Schacht may have meant, let’s consider the “humanism”  at issue here (modern humanism)  and compare it to some the 19th Century atheistic and agnosticism that was being expressed in Nietzsche’s time.

Consider first a few definitions of modern secular humanism:

Humanism is a progressive life stance that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead meaningful, ethical lives capable of adding to the greater good of humanity. • American Humanist Association

 Humanism is an approach to life based on reason and our common humanity, recognizing that moral values are properly founded on human nature and experience alone. • The Bristol Humanist Group

Humanism is a democratic and ethical life stance, which affirms that human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives. It stands for the building of a more humane society through an ethic based on human and other natural values in the spirit of reason and free inquiry through human capabilities. It is not theistic, and it does not accept supernatural views of reality   –  The International Humanist and Ethical Union

Other definitions and statements of principles emphasize the commitment to democracy,  to justice and fairness in society.  In short, modern secular humanists have  a commitment to humanitarianism and democratic institutions as their best hope for achieving some degree of justice and happiness.

Probably one word sums up much of the contemporary humanist outlook:  Progress.  Secular humanists tend to believe in progress.  With our move away from irrational religious dogma and theism and as people abandoned much of pre-scientific thinking of the past, we have realized and will continue to realize progress in most phases of life.  With the Enlightenment, the increase in rationality, and the rise of the natural sciences, we have progressed toward a vastly improved world.  The attitude generally is one of optimism, as expressed by Steven Pinker in his latest book, Enlightenment Now – The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.  In short, humanists tend to emphasize our capacity for human progress based on rational behavior, rationally grounded ethics, and commitment to science as a basis for our view of the world.

Although some of Nietzsche’s writings tends in this direction,  significant parts of his writing diverts from this type of humanism.  First, he gives voice to an attitude expressed by other “philosophical” thinkers prior to and leading up to the 19th Century (Pascal, Dostoevsky) who lamented the loss of belief in God.  Contrary to a celebratory attitude accompanying the abandonment of belief in a God,  some of the 19th Century secularists (in the West) were just breaking with a whole culture of religious ‘truth’ and values and found the prospects to be daunting, even frightening.   The end of theistically based thinking and acting were not causes for celebrating.   And Nietzsche’s announcement of the death of God, in the book, The Gay Science,  (Bk 3, 125)   is not a celebration but a warning that without belief in God humans were setting out in uncharted waters, so to speak.  The early Nietzsche at times is ambivalent about the “death of God,” which was his reference to the end of an entire culture of values and version of ‘truth.’

Secondly, as a result of his inquiry into human thinking on philosophy, morality, and religion and his investigations of actual behavior in human society and governments (state), Nietzsche’s picture of the human condition is one very far from an optimistic one. He is most skeptical of humanistic claims that when freed of religious constraints and pre-scientific beliefs humans will rely on reason and commit to ethical ideals.

So what can we say about Nietzsche’s early work, Human, All Too Human, and Schacht’s remark that it does not represents Nietzsche as a secular humanist at all? We can draw few preliminary conclusions, among them the following:
In this book Nietzsche develops a strict, naturalism that rejects idea of human as rationally driven. He does a psychological analysis of man’s values and beliefs and as a result rejects claims to rational ethics, democracy, and a rationally based philosophy.  Even the title of the book, Human, all too human implies limitations of human action and motives. What do we imply when we say of someone, he is human all too human? Often the phrase implies that someone has failed to perform up to ethical ideals and maybe even acted dishonorably.   In short, it is a way of saying that we should not expect consistently rational, ethically good behavior from human beings. Intellectual excellence and ethical virtue are not often part of our nature as evolved human animals. Nietzsche was markedly aware of our evolution as biological beings and aware of the psychological (often irrational) limitations of our actual values and beliefs to accept the view that humans are rational, ethical beings.

According to Nietzsche, the values and beliefs that drive human thinking and belief have a variety of sources. We learn these by a close study of human psychology, human interaction with other humans, culture, and the actual valuations that drive human behavior. But Schacht sees all this as a denial that “humanity … is the locus of meaning and value.” It is not exactly clear what this means. Surely Schacht does not imply that for Nietzsche meaning and values are derived from a source external to human existence. Maybe all he means is that Nietzsche would have rejected the humanist’s claim to value and meaning as being too idealistic and optimistic. If so, then we have no reason for objecting.
A constant theme in Nietzsche’s perspective is the idea that humanity is on its own, i.e., no God or transcendent reality to guide him. * Maybe what we should say is that for Nietzsche any meaning and value that man derives are to be gotten from a realistic appraisal of the human condition, not an idealized, overly optimistic one. Accordingly, we would say that evolution and psychology are as pertinent to any humanism as rationality and a scientific orientation.
Moreover, there’s a side to Nietzsche’s early work that is more encouraging for the secularists among us. This is expressed by Schacht as follows:

He [Nietzsche] has become convinced that only by something like a continuation and radicalization of the Enlightenment thinking, ruthlessly getting to the bottom of things and exposing all false hopes and dangerous palliatives, can afford us at least the possibility of a future worth having and a life worth living. Nietzsche’s dedication to Voltaire was the announcement of an intellectual re-orientation, placing him squarely in the courageous tradition of Enlightenment thought and effort.

Being in “the courageous tradition of Enlightenment thought and effort” surely conforms to the aspirations of many secular humanists. If we invoke a realistic, critical form of humanism, one that recognizes the limitations and actual tendencies in human behavior, we can profit from reading a philosopher like Nietzsche and while retaining a humanistic orientation.

* Jean P. Sartre argued for a existentialist version of humanism in his essay, “Existentialism is a Humanism.” (1946) His main point is that man is on his own; he determines his meaning and value.

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‘Free Will’ — a pseudo problem

The quoted excerpts are from an article • ” The World Without Free Wıll” by Azim F. Shariff and Kathleen D. Vohs

What happens to a society that believes people have no conscious control over their actions?

• In the past decade an increasing number of neuroscientists and philosophers have argued that free will does not exist. Rather we are pushed around by our unconscious minds, with the illusion of conscious control.
• In parallel, recent studies suggest that the more people doubt free will, the less they support criminal punishment and the less ethically they behave toward one another.

In reference to the man who choked his wife to death while sleepwalking, unaware of what he was doing..)

Such cases force people to consider what it means to have free will. During sleepwalking the brain clearly can direct people’s actions without engaging their full conscious cooperation. Recently an increasing number of philosophers and neuroscientists have argued that—based on a current understanding of the human brain—we are all in a way sleepwalking all the time. Instead of being the intentional authors of our lives, we are simply pushed around by past events and by the behind-the-scenes machinations of our unconscious minds. Even when we are wide awake, free will is just an illusion.

Philosophers with this viewpoint argue that all organisms are bound by the physical laws of a universe wherein every action is the result of previous events. Human beings are organisms. Thus, human behavior results from a complex sequence of cause and effect that is completely out of our control. The universe simply does not allow for free will. Recent neuroscience studies have added fuel to that notion by suggesting that the experience of conscious choice is the outcome of the underlying neural processes that produce human action, not the cause of them. Our brains decide everything we do without “our” help—it just feels like we have a say.
Not everyone agrees, of course, and debates over the existence of free will continue to rage. . .
Robert, thanks for an interesting article from Scientific American on one of my favorite subjects: The philosophical quandary concerning free will.  I agree with the authors that if people believe that humans lack freedom of action and humans are caused to do what they do by events and conditions out of their control, then there would be dire consequences for people’s ethical behavior and their treatment of others. Of course, if one is not responsible for what one does then those disposed to exploit and cheat will do so, while denying any and all responsibility. The consequences for our legal system and ethical/moral conventions would be dire. I also agree with their statement that most people who deny that anyone ever acts of his own free will favor penalties that are intended to reform and deter bad behavior over penalties that are retributive and mete out punishment for the sake of punishment.

“As our research has suggested, the more people doubt free will, the more lenient they become toward those accused of crimes and the more willing they are to break the rules themselves and harm others to get what they want. Thus, the second possibility is that newfound skepticism of free will may end up threatening the humanitarian revolution, potentially culminating in anarchy.”

They suggest that a possible solution is to reinvent belief in free will.

“More likely is the third possibility. In the 18th century Voltaire famously asserted that if God did not exist, we would need to invent him because the idea of God is so vital to keeping law and order in society. Given that a belief in free will restrains people from engaging in the kind of wrongdoing that could unravel an ordered society, the parallel is obvious. What will our society do if it finds itself without the concept of free will? It may well reinvent it.”

However, avoiding such utterly bad consequences for society surely does not require the invention of a mysterious faculty called free will. This is because the problem of free will should never have been laid in terms of the question: Does free will exist? Of course, it does not. But that is entirely irrelevant to real questions about human freedom or the lack of it.

There isn’t any  human faculty of free will. Modern neurology, evolutionary biology, and the cognitive sciences have established this much. Materialists (philosophers) have also known this for centuries. There is no such thing as free will.
But from this is does not follow that humans lack the capacity to act ‘freely,’ in the sense that in many cases (most cases for some) people do what they want to do and what they think is in their best interest. It does not at all follow that people are not in conscious control of what they do. (Imagine that we believed this screwy proposition. Would we get in our cars and drive the public streets and roads?) It also does not follow that people are not responsible for their actions, or open to blame when they screw up and credited with commendation when they do well.

In many cases (in most cases for those fortunate enough to live in a free, open society) we are not pushed around and compelled to act by external causes, such as a powerful, totalitarian state, or in the case of slavery, by the slave master and his police force. And even in many cases in which unconscious motivations cause us to act in uncharacteristic ways, we’re still generally responsible for what we do, unless our situation is a pathological one  (We are not sleepwalking. We are not drunk or in a drug-induced stupor.).  There are exceptions to the general fact that humans are responsible for what they do. These are exceptions which are recognized by medical professionals and the legal systems. But exceptions do not make up the general conditions of human behavior. It is false on the face of it, that “we are all in a way sleepwalking all the time.”

Humans are organisms bound by laws of physics, chemistry and biology. And, if I allow for the sake of argument that the “universe does allow for free will,” (in the sense of a faculty that is unaffected by physical causation), then we could agree that there’s no free will in the universe. But that mysterious, metaphysical, spiritual entity called ‘free will’ is not at all a necessary condition for affirming that in the ordinary meaning of freely chosen actions – doing what one desires to do and what one judges to be in one’s best interest – people act freely much of the time.

Yes, we are conditioned to varying degrees by all kinds of neurological conditions, physiological conditions, genetic conditions, environmental conditions, etc. We don’t live and act in a vacuum free of external and internal causation. But this does not prove or even offer compelling evidence for concluding that we never make meaningful choices and act responsibly. To say that, because of the conditions that affect how we act, nobody is to blame for wrongdoing is just as much a fallacy as saying that because an artist was affected by a large set of external and internal conditions, that artist should not get any credit for his works of art.

The entire business of denying free action and affirming a universal determinism is quirky business right from the start. I can understand how philosophers might fall victim to sloppy thinking on this; but surely scientists who should approach matters critically and with skepticism should never have fallen for the pseudo problem of free will.

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Is the Iconoclast Good or Bad for Philosophy?

Iconoclast: One who attacks and seeks to destroy widely accepted ideas, beliefs, etc. A destruction of the icons or idols.

“The destroyer of weeds, thistles, and thorns is a benefactor whether he soweth or not.” — Robert G. Ingersoll

“What we are destroying is nothing but houses of cards and we are clearing up the ground language on which they stand.”
—- Ludwig Wittgenstein

We’re familiar with those figures in the history of Western philosophy who questioned and undermined the beliefs and doctrines of their society, starting with some of the Pre-Socratics, the Sophists, and Socrates himself. Among the great figures in Western thought are a number of skeptics, certainly skeptical of religious doctrine, and other critical thinkers who rejected many of the prevailing social, political, and philosophical beliefs. Walter Kaufmann pointed out that two of the major philosophical trends of the 20th century, Analytical philosophy and Existentialism, were primarily revolts against much of what had come before in philosophy. So the idea of the philosopher as an iconoclast is not a new one.

But what about the Iconoclast who targets philosophy itself, who works to undermine fundamental ideas in philosophy? Is this a good or bad thing?  Much depends on what people mean by “philosophy” and the fundamental ideas of philosophy. It seems that we would have to identify these before we can say whether an attack on them is a good or bad thing.   The charge that the activity of philosophy is a waste of time would itself seem to be based on some ‘philosophical’ presuppositions. Some critics of philosophy from the field of science often make the charge that philosophical disputations are a waste of time.

There are a variety of attitudes that persons take with regard to philosophy. Among them are the attitudes of reverence (on one end of the scale) and iconoclasm (on the other end). The reverent attitude assumes that traditional philosophy expresses truth, or at least important aspects of truth; and that the scholar’s job is to render favorable interpretations of the text so as to bring out those important insights and truths. Contrary to this, the iconoclastic attitude mostly presumes that much of what traditional philosophers have written and uttered was confused and resulted from a lack of the knowledge that scientific development has provided.

Of course, there is a range of attitudes between the two extremes of reverence and iconoclasm. For example, the scholarly attitude that finds value in traditional philosophy but recognizes that the major figures in philosophy also got much wrong and were confused on important points. Another example coming from the far side of range is the critic who agrees with the iconoclast that much in traditional philosophy was wrong and misguided, but finds important lessons to be gotten from the errors of the philosophers.

“It is all a body of confusion and pre-scientific falsehoods and errors! It is best to ignore it all together.” So speaks the iconoclast, who often sees traditional philosophy as too closely aligned with religious doctrines and theologies, and thus not worth much of our time if we seek objective knowledge and clarity.

The moderate iconoclast emphasizes the degree to which philosophical theories and systems are the expressions of an age and a culture. There is a particular style of thinking and ‘psychology’ behind the philosophical expression which reduces (if not eliminates) philosophy’s claim to objective truth. In other words, the moderate iconoclast recognizes that philosophy is culturally and individually conditioned. Seen in these terms, traditional philosophy has much to teach us, but what it teaches is not the overarching ‘truths’ that some readers of philosophy have claimed.

There is at least one good answer to the question: Is iconoclasm good or bad for philosophy? It all depends on the kind of iconoclasm involved. The extreme form of iconoclasm that rejects everything that history and tradition offer is likely to overlook the value to be gotten from those sources. Is there value to be gotten? Yes, in any honest attempt to understand things, no matter how dated or erroneous, there is something of value to be learnt. Given a shared humanity, we learn at least how members of our tribe are inclined to think and where they’re inclined to search. Applying those lessons to our contemporary situation can be very valuable.

On the other side, a naïve reverence for traditional philosophers and philosophical systems will not contribute to our understanding and appreciation of what preceded us in the field of philosophy. Uncritical reverence is an attitude more appropriate to religious piety than it is to the spirit of philosophy. The uncritical, reverent reading of Holy Scripture and the writings of the founders of a religion is contrary to the critical spirit that philosophy should cultivate.

It may be that the proper terms is “respect” rather than “reverence.” An attitude of respect is consistent with recognition that imperfect human beings have worked in the field of philosophy and produced. Whether reading Plato, Spinoza, or Kant, we can appreciate the problems they confronted and their way of dealing with those problems while recognizing their limitations and the ‘wrong turns’ they took. We can appreciate and recognize their “genius” while acknowledging their overstatements and false generalizations. A reverent approach would deny that these great figures made any significant errors; whereas an extreme iconoclasm would deny they have anything of value to offer. Both extreme positions are faulty.

Reverence – (A bowing before the great figures.)
Such figures as Plato, Aristotle, Kant always get the benefit of the doubt – our interpretation will always be sympathetic – Our aim to is to illuminate the truths of the past.

Iconoclasm – (A destruction of the icons?)
Generally we reject the views of traditional figures as not applicable to our current problems and concerns. – Our aim is to undermine respect for tradition and thus focus on contemporary ways of dealing with problems. This may imply rejection of philosophy en toto.

Reform – (Reformation of the tradition.)
We try to give past philosophers their due, but we don’t hesitate to criticize and correct; our aim is to reform philosophy.

Iconoclasm is a preliminary step to Philosophy as Reformation.

The philosopher as a social critic. We see philosophy as criticism and evaluation of society’s values and institutions, often as rejecting the ‘idols of the tribe.’ This is a type of iconoclasm.

Some will argue that his is but one function of philosophy; and that other functions include expression and defense of culture’s values and institutions.

Some might ask: What gives philosophers this authority? Is not philosophy a part of the culture? How can philosophy take the role of critic and evaluator without assuming a perspective from outside of that culture?

Is it not true that any concentrated degree of thought and reflection leads one to question actions, practices, and policies? Questioning a convention sometimes leads one to reject that convention.

When a philosopher proposes a different perspective on things, he insinuates a rejection of (or at least a suspension of adherence to) the current perspective.

(Using the terminology of F. Bacon) Among the idols of the tribe that we should scrutinize: ancient myths, religious doctrines, the political and economic order, class structure, moral values, social view of reality, and other things.

Consider the reformer. Isn’t his first task that of undermining and eventually destroying the undesirable institution? His target might be a social institution such as slavery. First, he raises awareness among the general population by a sustained critique. Then, going beyond this, he works to undermine and eventually destroy the undesirable, old way of operating in favor of a new way.

“The idols and false notions which are now in possession of the human understanding, and have taken deep root therein, not only so beset men’s minds that truth can hardly find entrance, but even after entrance is obtained, they will again in the very instauration of the sciences meet and trouble us, unless men being forewarned of the danger fortify themselves as far as may be against their assaults.
Lastly, there are Idols which have immigrated into men’s minds from the various dogmas of philosophies, and also from wrong laws of demonstration. These I call Idols of the Theater, because in my judgment all the received systems are but so many stage plays, representing worlds of their own creation after an unreal and scenic fashion…”
— Francis Bacon

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Emotion (Love) as Essence of God?

A Philosophical correspondent (Sam) discusses definitions of  “God” and a critics objection:

Our secular critic criticized  John’s  definition of God as infinite power, intelligence, and goodness by noting that this defines God as a collection of abstract concepts. Perhaps what he meant was that there’s something wrong with defining God in terms of abstract concepts, even if we mean them figuratively rather than literally. If so, I think he’s right. It makes of God an object of the understanding and encourages rationalists to frame the problem of God as if it is just another challenge for science to tackle. This puts human understanding in a god-like position while putting God in a position of object in relation to humanity’s god-like subjectivity. That kind of thinking, which is typical of the Enlightenment concept of reason, was the target of Kant’s First Critique. But not many people seem to have got the message, retaining the Enlightenment concept of reason in their understanding of science.

Then  Sam offers a “better definition”:

” … here is my suggestion for a better definition of God. God is love. That, of course, is not my original idea. It’s a platitude. It is expressed in a familiar hymn that says, ““God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God and God in him.” Even the Beatles said “All You Need Is Love.” St. Paul’s famous discourse on love in Corinthians, 13 spells out the nature of love.
” If God is love, we do not understand God; we feel Him. We know what love is because and to the extent that we feel it. Fortunately our biology inclines us to fall in love, and everybody who falls deeply in love gets a lesson on what love is. I would describe it as a kind of happy energy. The description of God as energy is not bad, for energy is the source of nature. And it is not hard to see that true happiness is not in being loved, but in loving. When I love, I abide in God, and God abides in me. That is more a matter of experience than of faith.
“When Jesus was challenged to name the most important commandment, he said that it is to love God with your whole heart, mind, and soul. I think of that less as a commandment and more as advice. It’s the best advice you can get, because it yields the greatest happiness. For the love of God is an all-inclusive love. That’s why the second commandment, to love your neighbor, is “like it.” But loving God does not come easily or naturally. I work at it every day. Little by little, I succeed more and more, and the more I succeed the happier I become. The great thing about marriage is that it gives you, in your spouse, a concrete focus for your practice. Your spouse is by your side every day, all the time. If you feel a growing love for your spouse, your love for God is growing. Even if you don’t believe in God, to grow in love is to grow in God.”


Then I responded that despite my low estimate of much theology and most god talk. I would indulge in a form of anthropology of god belief.   I entered the arena.

When I questioned John’s list of abstract ‘powers’ as definitive of God, I was not thinking along the lines that Sam  suggests. I was not rejecting John’s definition because it makes God a subject for the understanding rather than one for ‘feeling.’ Yes, it is true that some people  who indulge in god talk advance this notion of god as an object for feeling, particularly, an object of love. But much of Catholic theology, especially as advanced by Thomas Aquinas, sticks with the notion of God as accessible to reason and subject to rational philosophy. It is strange to me that anyone dedicated to philosophy would propose the “theology of feeling” as the best bet for stating what theists mean by “God.”

Continuing with my anthropological critique of god talk, I’ll point out that the only basis for saying anything about any alleged ‘god’ is by taking note of the behavior of those committed to that ‘god.’ When we do (looking at the long, bloody history of god belief), we find anything but expression of love. What we find is violence, aggression, and the use of ‘god’ as a club to beat down the opposition. If we try to infer the ‘god’ at issue, it is not one in which God is Love, at all. This does not rule out exceptions, people who try to practice their religion as a form of love for humanity. And, yes, there is much expression of this sentiment in much religious literature, starting with scripture.

But as a philosophical statement of the nature of God, the God-is-Love proposition does not sound very promising. Yes, it might make sense that some people try to follow the advice to “love God with whole heart, mind, and soul.” (Good luck with that one!) But the reciprocal love of God for his creatures surely smacks of a cruel caricature when you consider that Christian God is ready to commit the bulk of humanity to eternal fires of Hell. (God’s love means often having to say you’re sorry: “Sorry, you poor, imperfect human schmuck, but it is to Hell that I send you!”) Even the good, loving Jesus hardly expresses love for all (despite Christian propaganda); consider his condemnation of all (e.g. the pharisees and scribes) who don’t accept his word as the Word of God. This is hardly the mark of love.

Maybe the ‘God is Love’ is a comforting sentiment for some, but it hardly stands up to the least level of scrutiny. (The intellectual conscience is left wanting, to say the least!)

(So much for venture into the anthropology of god talk.)

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Philosophers debate, but many don’t appreciate it much.

Juan Bernal
I  recall a debate sponsored by the philosophy department of a local university back in the late 1960s on the issue of abortion. It was open to the public, and some attendees were from the community; but most were philosophy faculty and students.  Two members of the faculty were the debaters.  One argued for the pro-choice (PC)  position; the other debater argued the pro-life (PL) position.
PC:   He presented a novel argument for the pro-choice on abortion, one based on our ordinary language regarding personhood and the status of fetus.  He argued that we don’t speak of ourselves as persons present in the world until after birth as infants.  We don’t speak of ourselves as being in places that our mother may have occupied when she pregnant with us (as a fetus).  We don’t claim to have been present when significant events took place while we were a fetus in the uterus.   In short, in our ordinary ways of talking and thinking we do not intuitively regard the fetus as having a status of a person.  This beings so, it follows that the act of aborting the fetus cannot be classified as an act of killing a person.  Abortion should not be prohibited or restricted on that account.
PL:  He argued mainly on basis of the potential that an unborn person, the fetus, represents.  Even if abortion is not an act of killing a person, it is an act of destroying a human fetus with potential for becoming a person.  The fetus has great value not only because of its status as a human fetus but also because of its potential.  Aborting the fetus cannot be compared to a medical procedure of removing unwanted tissue or organ.  Aborting the fetus is a case of destroying a developing human life, one which has great value.   For those reasons, abortion of the fetus should be greatly restricted, if not prohibited altogether.
I thought both debaters did a good job of presenting their side of the issue; but I was more impressed by the debater who argued the pro-choice position, thinking that he carried the day.  But the faculty member arguing the pro-life position also had his supporters.  The discussion that followed was dominated by the usual topics on the abortion issue:  the status of the fetus, the rights of the mother, the justification (or not) of destruction of life, the stage at which the fetus is aborted (viability, capability of feeling pain. development of the nervous system) and so on.
But soon one person from the community (a non-philosopher) spoke up.  He introduced himself as someone outside of academia.  He was a lawyer who represented women’s clinics that provided abortion services and defended and counseled the clients of such clinics.   He stated his great disappointment with the debate, telling us that he came expecting to find some philosophical guidance and direction for people who deal with the practice of abortion in the real world, but found nothing in  what either debater offered to be of any use.  Working with women’s clinics and their clients was very challenging and stressful (for all concerned) , and academic discussions on abortion such as the one he had just witnessed were pretty much useless , he claimed.
Nobody really offered any reply to the man or tried defend the ‘work’ of philosophers on issues like abortion.  Maybe this was because he spoke up when it was late and people were tired.  But I remember thinking that the man had not understood the philosophical aspects of the issue and his rejection of the relevance of such debates was just indicative of a non-philosopher’s ignorance of the philosophical problem.  After all, I was a student of philosophy and philosophy surely was more relevant and important than this man indicated.
That was 1969-70 when I was young and pretty much philosophically undeveloped.   Today I know better.  Today I’m more inclined to think that the lawyer made a telling point.  Much of our philosophical discussion on social and political issues such as abortion is really not of much help to those directly dealing with those problems in the world outside of the philosophical halls and coffee shops.  Much of our philosophical discussions are mostly abstract and theoretical, so much so that only the academic specialists can truly appreciate them.  And, with a few exceptions, such discussions and debates are not too relevant to the real problems that individuals like those working for family planning clinics and their clients face everyday.
Yes, those of us in philosophy (both officially and unofficially) insist that philosophers provide the grounds for practical action and choice (with regard to a host of social, political issues, such as abortion).  Yes, that’s what we like to think.  But is it true?


On Representations: A Strange Philosophical View of Perceptual Experience

One of my philosophical correspondents, Spano, has written as follows:

Let’s begin with the claim that “to be aware of objects in the world, I must form a representation of them “inside,”in my brain or in my mind.” What does this mean? It means that to be aware of objects in the world, I must receive information about them through my senses. This information must be passed to the brain, and in the brain it is synthesized with previous ideas and information which have been stored in the brain. The outcome of this process is a representation. …..
.   .    .    .
If we agree that there is a distinction between the representation and the thing represented, then obviously the direct object of perception is the representation and not the thing represented. If the thing represented were directly perceived, there would be no need for a representation, and the word “representation” would never have come up in attempts (such as Locke’s) to explain the origin, nature, and limits of knowledge. The word would apply only to such things as paintings, drawings, and narrative descriptions. But ever since Locke the word has applied to the direct objects of perceptual experience.
You ask, “How do you experience a representation?” First you have to decide what you want to experience a representation of. Let’s say you want to experience a representation of your hand. Then all you have to do is look at your hand. In your act of looking – according to the Cartesian, Newtonian, Lockean ideas of the 17th century - you will inevitably experience a representation. You couldn’t experience anything else
It would be too lengthy a dissertation to bring out all the problems found in Spano’s remarks.  On past occasions I have argued some of these points at length, but will not bore you with repetition of all points of disagreement with Spano.  I’ll limit my remarks to what follows:
1)  Consider the phrase:  ”…to be aware of objects in the world, I must form a representation of them “inside,”in my brain or in my mind.”  The purported locations of the ‘representations’  are not at all equivalent or even in similar categories.   “In the brain” is clear enough a locations and would be a clear reply to the question “Where is X located?”   But “in the mind” is completely metaphorical and does not at all state an unambiguous location.  ”In my mind” simply means in my thoughts or alternatively, something about which I think.  A lover who writes of his beloved, “I have you in my mind,” does not claim that the beloved inhabits his brain, rather than where ever she happens to be.  He merely states that he has her in his thoughts or is thinking of her.   “She is in my mind” does not at all answer the question “Where is she?”   To think it does is tantamount to a category error.
2)  So I shall understand Spano’s statement on the location of representations to be that they are in the brain and I shall take his remarks as a metaphorical description of the bodily processes (sense faculty sensitive to some aspect of the environment, production of a chemical-electrical signal  which is then passed to the proper region of brain,  brain processing the signal to yield some information about the environment,  etc.).  He thinks that “the outcome of this process is a representation.”  And then he proceeds to talk about problems related to these ‘representations.’  Since they are representations in an individual’s brain, how can we even compare one with another in someone else’s brain?  How can we ever verify that anyone of them represents objective fact?   and such.  Spano is not explicit, but his remarks surely suggest that for him the representation internal to the brain is not just the “outcome of the perceptual process” but is the object that we perceive.  (One cannot avoid the humorous image of the perceiving subject also located somewhere within the brain reading a screen which displays the information or signals coming in from the external world.)   As an alternative model, I suggest that the perceptual process — described by the relevant sciences — explains how we are perceptually aware of features of our environment, not how we become aware of an internal representation.   It is the processes (bodily, nervous system processes) which make possible our perception of objective reality.
3)  Spano’s argument for the distinction between representation and thing represented is curious.  He seems to believe that because our distinction between representation and thing that is represented is a functional one, then we have grounds for the causal theory of perception which implies that we directly perceive representations:
 If we agree that there is a distinction between the representation and the thing represented, then obviously the direct object of perception is the representation and not the thing represented. If the thing represented were directly perceived, there would be no need for a representation…
But ….  Why would we agree to this?  As Spano admits, the distinction between representation and thing represented comes about in a variety of ways.  It does not have to arise from a specific epistemology or theory of perception.  As soon as early humans started to depict things (e.g., animal images) on the cave walls, the conditions were present for distinguishing between representation and thing represented.  This has nothing to do with classical empiricism, the theory of ideas, or subsequent ‘theories’ such as sense-datum theories.  There is no problem whatsoever in taking the position that we directly perceive things in the objective world and understanding how the concept of representation arose.
4)  Finally, we have Spano’s explanation of what happens when you hold out your hand and look at it.  You experience a representation of your hand, and nothing else.   Does this mean that we don’t see our hand, but only a representation of our hand?   Here Spano hedges some between presenting this as his view of things or only the Cartesian, Newtonian, Lockean ideas of the 17th century.     Regardless, he offered this as a clarification of what he meant by an “experience of a representation.”   We can infer that Spano must subscribe in some way to that view.  And regardless of whether this is an idea of the 17th century only or Spano’s view of things, it is a very strange, implausible view of things.  We know what seeing a representation of one’s hand would be; it would be to see a photograph, or video recording, or drawing of one’s hand.  And even an elementary school child can distinguish between the real hand and the representation of the hand.  But that same school child would laugh at the suggestion that his little hand, as he picks up his toys, is not a real hand but only a representation.. (?)     To think that when a person holds up his hand and sees it he sees only a representation of the hand is false on the face of it, even suggestive of an absurdity.  I suppose that if you (Spano) held up your hand in front of your eyes and “experience the representation” and I were to stick a sharp pin in your ‘representation’ of your hand, you would not feel a pain in your hand, but only what …?  A representations of a pain in the representation of your hand.    Sorry, but this is simply absurd.

Four Giants of Modern Humanism

Four Figures of Humanism’s Recent Past

Nineteenth Century:   Precursors of Secular Humanism

Charles Darwin’s work (Origin of Species, Descent of Man) changes the playing field for non-theists and naturalistic perspective on biological sphere. There is no longer a need to defer to those who pointed to design in nature as evidence that life could not have arisen and evolved naturally.  Darwin’s work can be seen as giving a strong basis for an all-round humanistic philosophy common to advocates of  free thought, religious skeptics,  and non-theists.

Robert Ingersoll’s strong promotion of free thought and strong criticism of religious fundamentalism in his very popular lectures throughout the USA  instructed and entertained thousands.  Ingersoll merits the title “the great Agnostic”  and surely can be seen as a great precursor of humanist philosophy and thought, as he presents entertaining critiques of Biblical Christianity and strong advocacy of science and reason.

Twentieth Century Advocates of Humanism

Humanism in the US:  John Dewey, whose pragmatic, naturalistic philosophy, advocacy of intelligence in society, of due attention to the sciences, and promotion of education as key to a successful society, all are the basis for humanistic perspective.   Dewey rejects abstract, systematic philosophies in favor of a pragmatic philosophy that serves social and human needs.

Humanism by a British Philosopher:  Bertrand Russell’s strong criticism of theistic religion and his constant advocacy of science and reason are also seen as promoting secular humanism in Britain and the USA.  His collection of essays, “Why I am not a Christian” express a strong secular stand against traditional religion.  His life of activism and stands for social-political freedom and his opposition to his country’s war policies can also be seen as models for humanistic activism.


Charles Darwin is centrally important in the development of scientific and humanist ideas because he first made people aware of their place in the evolutionary process when the most powerful and intelligent form of life discovered how humanity had evolved. The theory of evolution by natural selection was first put forward by Darwin in On the Origin of Species, published in 1859, and his theory is still generally accepted as the best available explanation of the way life on this planet developed.

It is hard to exaggerate the influence that Darwin’s work, Origin of the Species (1859)  had on Western thought.  With effective arguments for evolution of all life forms from common ancestry and the theory of natural selection, Darwin and his colleagues effectively revolutionized the biological sciences and a good part of general Western thought.   Harold Y. Vanderpool remarks concerning the “the power and scope of the impact of Darwin’s theory of evolution on the Western Intellect.”

Darwin and Darwinists created a veritable revolution that profoundly influenced existing presuppositions about man, religion, the natural world, social institutions, and even the fundamental presupposition that change is a permanent aspect of human life and institutions.

(Darwin and Darwinism (Revolutionary Insights concerning Man, Nature, Religion, and Society).  Edited and Introduction by Harold Y. Vanderpool)

Robert Ingersoll as a 19th Century Socrates?

Since he did not write books, although many of his lectures were published after his death and  are available, we could compare Ingersoll to Socrates in this respect.  Socrates carried on his philosophy in the public square, directly engaging Athenians in dialogue.  In an analogous way, Ingersoll, the great orator,  took his Free Thought philosophy to the public arena, delivering very successful and popular lectures to large crowds and also engaging in dialogue and debate with all comers.

Traveling across the continent when most Americans did not, he spread his message not only to urban audiences but also to those who had ridden miles on horseback to hear him speak in towns set down on the prairies of the Midwest and the rangelands of the Southwest. Between 1875 and his death in 1899, Ingersoll spoke in every state except Mississippi, North Carolina, and Oklahoma.

Known as Robert Injuresoul to his clerical enemies, he raised the issue of what role religion ought to play in the public life of the American nation for the first time since the writing of the Constitution, when the Founders deliberately left out any acknowledgment of a deity as the source of governmental power. In one of his most popular lectures, titled “Individuality,” Ingersoll said of Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin:

They knew that to put God in the Constitution was to put man out. They knew that the recognition of a Deity would be seized upon by fanatics and zealots as a pretext for destroying the liberty of thought. They knew the terrible history of the church too well to place in her keeping, or in the keeping of her God, the sacred rights of man. They intended that all should have the right to worship, or not to worship; that our laws should make no distinction on account of creed. They intended to found and frame a government for man, and for man alone. They wished to preserve the individuality and liberty of all; to prevent the few from governing the many, and the many from persecuting and destroying the few.

John Dewey is usually listed under American Pragmatism as one of three main proponents, along with __ Pierce and William James, but his contribution to goes beyond his pragmatism.  Dewey is one of those philosophers who recognized the importance of the sciences, including Darwin’s evolutionary science, to any contemporary philosophy.

Contemporary philosophers like Sydney Hook and Richard Rorty considered Dewey’s philosophy as vital to an understanding of the role and function of philosophy in contemporary society. Basing himself on the relevant findings of the sciences, he developed a humanistic philosophy focusing on a call for intelligence in individual action and social policy, while shunning the grand speculative metaphysics and idealism prevalent in much of traditional.

John Dewey was what we would call today a humanist activist. He was one of the original thirty-four signers of the Humanist Manifesto in 1933 and an honorary member of the Humanist Press Association, which was the predecessor to the American Humanist Association. With a wide range of works that were not only highly respected in academia but also influential in shaping American public policy and dialogue, Dewey is arguably the single most important public intellectual in the history of modern American humanism.


Philosopher, mathematician, academic, and campaigner for intellectual, social and sexual freedom, and peace and disarmament, Bertrand Russell was a prominent atheist. He wrote about his worldview in Why I am Not a Christian, and was a member of the British Humanist Association’s Standing Advisory Council, as well as President of Cardiff Humanists, until his death.

….He was a philosopher, an outstanding mathematician, a champion of intellectual, social and sexual freedom, a pioneer of new ideas in education, and a writer.  ..  Fundamental to his work in formal philosophy was the idea that beliefs should be based on evidence and logical procedures. He applied this idea to his philosophy of life. From about the age of fifteen he became deeply concerned with questions like the existence of god, for which he could find no evidence. At the age of eighteen he became an atheist. He found it a great relief to be free of some of the fears and dogma surrounding religion. He became aware of many instances where religious beliefs opposed humanitarian and scientific progress. Looking at the suspicion, fear and persecution arising from religions over the centuries, Russell came to believe that religious practices have done more harm than good. In his book Why I am Not a Christian, he says that “religions are both harmful and untrue.” When he was asked, in a famous radio debate, how he could explain the existence of the universe, his reply was, “I should say the universe is just there, and that’s all.”


Function of philosophy and pseudo problems of free will

Juan Bernal

Our function in philosophy is not to uncover facts about such things as human freedom and a deterministic world.  Regardless of how much they imagine they can do,  philosophers do not actually  discover truths about the world and human behavior.  Human beings will continue to believe that they have or lack degrees of freedom and will continue to act accordingly, regardless of what philosophers declare on this subject.  The world (natural and social worlds) is what it is, subject to a degree of determinism, but also characterized by randomness (or “random noise” as one physicist, Taner Edis, put it in his great book, The Ghost in the Universe),  regardless of what determinists and non-determinists pronounce about the character of the world.

The function of philosophy is to correct and clarify our language and concepts regarding human freedom and the alleged deterministic character of the world.  In short, the correct view of the philosopher’s task is to see him (her) as sorting out and clarifying the way we talk and think about human freedom and the alleged deterministic character of the world.   The philosopher’s task is a conceptual one, not one of discovering what holds true in the world, natural or social world.  If any group has the task of uncovering truth regarding the nature of the physical world (deterministic or not?) and the nature of human behavior (free or determined?), it would be a relevant science or sciences.  The time has long past that philosophers had this task or could realistically claim to carry out this task.

Given these points, we can characterize the free will – determinism problem as one concerning our conception of the deterministic character of the world.  Some philosophers argue that this implies a view of the alleged deterministic character of the world from a human perspective.   From a human perspective, the putative determinism that applies to our world is not one that enables general, accurate prediction regarding human action. (Dennett also has a qualified view of determinism.  He holds that that determinism does not imply inevitability. See his book, Freedom Evolves.)  The speculative theorist can posit a determinism that does imply inevitability and predictability with regard to human action.  But this is nothing more a speculative theory, or determinism from the perspective of a deity or an all-knowing intelligence.  This is mostly irrelevant to our human perspective of the alleged deterministic character of the world.

The conception of human freedom which takes into account our ordinary discourse and thought about human action and free choice allows that we have degrees of freedom to act, degrees which vary according to a variety of conditions.  This ordinary way of talking and thinking about human action does not imply that we lack freedom to act or choose between alternative actions.  Nor does this ordinary discourse and thought imply that human freedom requires that we act independently of corporeal (neurological) conditions or independently of environmental conditions.  I call this the action-in-vacuum notion of human freedom and consider this a gross misconception of freedom.

Given these ways of thinking about the alleged determinism in the world and human action, there is no problem of free will.  Humans can realize degrees of freedom and make informed choices; in many situations they can do what they desire to do or what they find to be in their best interest. There isn’t any conflict between this concept of free action and a concept of determinism which does not imply predictability or inevitability.   This free action and free choice are all that are required for what Dennett refers to as freedom worth having.

This does not prevent people so inclined (philosophers, psychologists, even scientists) from fabricating a problem of free will, based on a posited universal determinism which results in all acts being inevitable and which hypothetically implies general predictability of all human action.  They can and do.  Furthermore, nothing prevents them from advancing ideals of freedom based on an artificial definition of freedom which requires that a free act take place in complete isolation from all material and environmental conditions.  Given these notions, there is no human freedom and you have a full-blown problem of free will.  But in my view, this is just a philosophers’ problem — something for academics to play around with —  but not at all something that has any bearing on our actual thinking and correct discourse about human freedom, nor any bearing on what we can and cannot do in the world.

Non-Dualists Do Not Deny Subjective Experience!

Juan Bernal


An entry in Wikipedia on “Eliminative Materialism” reads as follows:

 ”Eliminative materialism is the relatively new (1960s-70s) idea that certain classes of mental entities that common sense takes for granted, such as beliefs, desires, and the subjective sensation of pain, do not exist. The most common versions are eliminativism about propositional attitudes, as expressed by Paul and Patricia Churchland and eliminativism about qualia (subjective experience), as expressed by Daniel Dennett and Georges Rey.”

Eliminative materialism supposedly is one version of non-dualism, the denial of the dualistic view which divides reality into two realms, matter and mind.  Some people take this to imply that the non-dualist denies subjective experience.  But this is erroneous and indicative of some confusion.

Skepticism about putative ‘objects’ of subjective experience (such as impressions and qualia) does not translate into skepticism about subjective experience; it does not amount to skepticism about the reality of subjective experience. I reject the philosophy of dualism (that reality is divided into matter and mind) but surely would not dream of denying that we have subjective experiences much of the time.

Lately a friend argued that a denial of dualism (such as that by the Eliminative Materialist) amounts to a denial that we have subjective experiences.  This surely seems to mix up two different issues:  dualism and first-person experiences.

Dualism:  Reality has two aspects: material/physical/corporeal   and    mind/mental   (e.g., Cartesian Dualism).  There exist such entities as thoughts, ideas, perceptions, beliefs, desires, subjective sensations and other denizens of our “inner-life.”

Subjective experience:  From a first-person perspective:  I often have thoughts, ideas, feelings, sensations, aspirations, and dream dreams  which I keep to myself.  I don’t report them or describe them to others.  Some might refer to this a private, subjective experiences.


Below is my reply to my friend:

Someone who denies dualism can consistently affirm the obvious truth that each of us has subjective experiences.  These are different issues altogether.  In fact, I don’t know of any non-dualist who denies that people have subjective experiences.  Not even the more radical behaviorists went to that extreme.  What they deny is the relevance of first-person, subjective experiences for conclusions as to what may or may not exist, or (in the case of behaviorism), for what applies to our public behavior.   My subjective experience does not manifest a separate mental realm, or a mind separate from my nervous system.  My subjective experiences are indicative of the capabilities of my corporeal person.  If you insist on referring to mind, our reference is to an embodied mind and physically-based mental processes.

Some people prefer the metaphor “inner life.”  (You wrote: “There must be something more than outer appearance and behavior to be human, there has to be an “inner life”.)  This is harmless unless you attribute too much to that metaphor: “inner life”; e.g.,  infer that this inner life is a reality alongside our outer life.  In this case, using the metaphor inner life would be subscribing to a dualistic metaphysics.  One can affirm that we (humans) have our private, subjective experiences (things we keep to ourselves) without the metaphysical implication of an inner life.  “Life” properly used refers to biological life of an organism; a public rather than inner life.

Of course, humans have the capability of that which you call “inner life.”  We all have our own thoughts and dream our own dreams.  The exercise referred to as the zombie thought experiments may be understood by many people to show that zombies and robots – regardless of how sophisticated – do not have an inner life.

But the exercise can also be used to bring out the fact that first-person experience of an “inner life” does not come into play when we distinguish between persons and non-persons.  For example, suppose that this very sophisticated robot reports and describes what he thinks and dreams?  Why couldn’t he have some ‘internal’ processing that he does not usually manifest as external processing?   How does this differ from second- or third-person reports of an “inner life”?  How, for example, do you know that your wife has an inner life?   Isn’t it only by her behavior, linguistic and other public behavior?   Surely you cannot experience her “inner life”?  If so, then what is the difference between your wife’s claim to an inner life and that of a sophisticated robot?   Aren’t both claims such that we only have some external form of behavior to go on?

The point is that we have legitimate concepts of personhood which we apply when making a distinction between persons and robots.  They are public criteria, such as those coming from biology, cognitive sciences,  history,  culture, and such.  As a result, we might say that a person has the capacity for subject experiences, which, among other things, give a basis for a hard distinction between persons and robots.  But none of this rests on any first-person, subjective experience of an “inner life.”

In conclusion, the rejection of dualism is distinct from any claim as to the reality or unreality of subjective experience. There is no reason whatsoever for thinking that denying the dualistic picture of reality implies that one denies an obvious, common-sense fact: that we have subjective experiences much of the time.

Discussion: A Human Perspective and its Limitations

Juan Bernal

A member of our philosophy club (Paul) had stated that “our categories of thought evolved to live and prosper in our planet-size world.”  In other words, the concepts by which we interpret reality resulted from our evolution as creatures who survived and prospered in our natural and social environment.

His friend (John) Then raised the following questions:

Does this view entail that in the bigger picture of reality our human categories may fall short of being able to conceive an adequate view of reality? Might there exist a greater intelligence than ours, perhaps an infinite intelligence, capable of knowing everything? In short, since our capacities are limited, might God exist in spite of our inability to know this? Might there be more things than Paul dreams of in his philosophy?

This stimulated me to think some on these questions.  Then I offered this contribution to the discussion.


It seems that any philosophy and any theology that humans advance  will be  limited by our concepts and categories of thought; and further it seems that our language and concepts developed in a context of a natural, physical world.  So, even when someone dreams up gods, ghosts, and purely spiritual realms, there’s a sense in which that persons  is limited to those categories of thought (many based on our physical existence and physical acts).  Yes, we can imagine non-physical beings of one sort or another; but any attempt to say much about the  properties and doings of these imaginary beings will rely on a language and set of concepts that developed in a natural context and primarily apply to physical reality: objects, actions, processes.  Talk of spiritual, unearthly realms is generally metaphorical talk; and the metaphors applied get any significance they have from our natural, physical ways of talking and thinking.

Our ways of thinking and our ways of effectively doing inquiry into reality may or may not give an adequate view of reality, depending on what aspect of reality you’re talking about.  You ask about speculations that greater intelligences might exist who dwarf our limited intellectual capabilities.  Of course such possibilities could show the limitations of our view of things.  Who knows what intelligent cultures might exist on other parts of the universe?  Your suggestion of an “infinite intelligence,” capable of knowing everything seems to be just another way of referring to one concept of a deity that humans have dreamt up.  My view is that the very of notion of an infinite intelligence, when fully analyzed, is likely incoherent.  At least, there’s much in contemporary physical theories that render doubtful the idea that any intelligence could have knowledge of everything. Omniscience may not even be a coherent concept!

Our scope of knowledge and even our scope of plausible conjectures are limited.  And given those limitations,  many possibilities remain, including some greater being for whom we are failed experiment.  John, the possibilities which we can entertain are a “dime-a-dozen.”   Take your choice.  But insofar as we’re concerned with human thought and human philosophy, we must proceed with what we have (what our natural, cultural capabilities allow).  The dreams and other-world speculations of some people can be taken for what they are: dream and speculations.  People dream all kinds of alternative  worlds all the time: fiction, mystical visions, theologies, futuristic visions, etc. etc.    These are all part of the drama called human reality; but there aren’t any grounds for thinking that these alternative visions and dreams constitute any basis for doubting the general reliability and limited truth of our human-based, naturalistic philosophies.   Because we cannot see everything does not show that what we can see is unreliable.