Author Archives: jbernal

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.



Q&A on God and Suffering, a correspondence

Juan Bernal

A friend who corresponds on philosophical issues remarked on some things I had said about the problem of evil. The problem of evil, in nutshell, is the problem of explaining why a world monitored by God can have so much evil and suffering.

My correspondent can be called John.  John wrote:

You seem to say that the amount of suffering entails disbelief in God. A classic rejoinder is that in a world without suffering there would be no compassion, but would such conditions be better than the world we experience? Leibniz said no. As we know, he thought that this is the best of all possible worlds (for God’s purposes). If we want to produce “character” then challenges are needed, so danger is necessary to produce courage, etc.  This world is a spiritual boot camp to promote growth. Stretching our spatial limits beyond this planet, what evidence can you offer that there is more suffering than happiness? In temporal terms, how do you know the balance between joy and sorrow in the long term?

My reply to John went as follows:

I’ll take each of your statements and comment in turn.

First, I never asserted that suffering entailed disbelief in God as a general truth.  (I try to avoid such categorical declarations.)   It is true that the arbitrary suffering and injustice that some people experience would make it difficult for a logical thinker to continue believing in an omnipotent, perfectly good God, and some would assuredly reject belief in such a God.  But some people do not do so; they find some way of reconciling their suffering with their faith.  I did not state a logical entailment between suffering in the world and disbelief in God.

Second, your rejoinder is a puzzler, since those who indict God on the excessive, arbitrary suffering that afflict some people are not calling for a world absolutely devoid of suffering. (Such a world is just the dream of some romantic idealist.)   I surely never suggested that that this fantasy of a world (one devoid of suffering) is the only thing that would exonerate God.  Maybe, we (the critics) just call for a world in which suffering is significantly reduced, for example, one in which genocides don’t happen and children don’t suffer fatal cancer.  Yes, in such a world, conditions would be better.  Leibniz nutty claim about this being the best of all possible worlds is one that we can take seriously only if we pretend to assess the condition of the world from God’s perspective.  But that is just a pretense.  We can honestly assess the condition of the world only from a human perspective.

I don’t doubt that challenges are important and maybe even necessary in our lives, and true also that  challenges involve frustration and suffering, in some cases.  And I suppose you can say that meeting challenges helps to build character. (They surely are conditions for some of our greatest art!)  But tell me, what character is built for the millions whose lives were cut short by the holocaust, by total war, by early deaths due to preventable disease?   Is this the only way your God can “build character”?    That the world is a “spiritual boot camp to promote growth” is a nice sentiment for those who believe such things.  But it hardly answers the questions of suffering Job, or of Ivan in the Dostoevsky novel, or the Jewish prisoners awaiting execution at the hands of the Nazi.  In fact it sounds like an insult to those people.

It seems that “stretching our limits beyond this planet” is just an expression of some people’s aspiration.  Or it might be an attempt to see things from a supernatural perspective. But this perspective would surely result in very strange view of things, probably beyond any human understanding contrary to all your religious doctrines, stories, and ‘philosophies’ which pretend to tell us what things look like from that fantastic perspective.  But the main point is that such “stretching” is irrelevant to the problem of evil.  You’re simply asking me to provide evidence against some highly, speculative  -  even mystical – claim.

According to this highly speculative picture there is much more happiness than evil in the universe despite all appearances to the contrary in our real, earthly life.  This is just another statement of the “ultimate harmony” story, which many of us find incredible and not very relevant.

In order to raise the problem of evil (why does God allows so much?), I don’t have to know “the balance between joy and sorrow in the long term,” when the long term takes us to some imagined supernatural realm which some people dream up.  I only need some assessment of the balance between joy and sorrow for people here on earth, and some assessment of the great a disparity in this nonexistent ‘balance.’  Those conditions that hold in our earthly life are enough to raise the problem of evil.


John then responded by focusing attention on my comment that “we can honestly assess the condition of the world only from a human perspective.”

 Do you agree that our human perspective is limited, and therefore incomplete and possibly (probably?) mistaken in many ways? If so, then it is rash for you to leap to atheism. Your skepticism or agnosticism is appropriate for you at this level of understanding, but don’t you think that atheism is a bit too strong a claim for one who admits human limitations? Does not atheism entail that there is a correct point of view, namely the way matters actually stand independent of human limitations? It would seem that you are certain that there are correct points of view about some issues, such as the non-existence of God, but how does that cohere with your claim about our limited human perspective?

To which I replied:

I did not even know that the issue up front was between atheism or theism.   Do you think I have leaped to atheism?  I have not, but that’s another story for another time.

When I claim that we’re all limited to our human perspective on the world,  I argue that all of us, including you, all theists, theologians, mystics, great philosophers, etc. are limited in the sense that none of us can jump out of  our human perspective and really view and assess things from a different (non-human) perspective;  although many people like to pretend otherwise.  Yes, our human perspective is limited and can be mistaken in many ways (who would ever think otherwise?).   But, really now, do you seriously think anyone can really assess things and make judgments as to such things as good and evil, the prospects for a supernatural being overseeing human affairs, and other such issues from anything but a human perspective?   Yes, many people claim a transcendent perspective, some based on religious doctrine, or religious scripture, or even religious experience (e.g., a mystical experience).  But tell me which of these many contending claims to a transcendent perspective can legitimately claim to be a real perspective  -  relevant to the rest of us -  to the nature of reality?   Do you have a candidate?   Why is that one special?

Given that human claims to something other than a human perspective are suspicious, to say the least,  and given that a human perspective on things (by means of common experience, judicious use of reason, and the empirical sciences) do not yield a clear indication of a supernatural overseer, it does not seem fair or accurate to describe the non-theistic view as a “leap to atheism.”  If anything is a leap, it is the avowal in belief in such a Being, as Kierkegaard and other religious figures surely recognized.

Maybe agnosticism is a more comforting view for those of us who emphasize the limitations of the human perspective.  But some aspects of the agnostic view imply a suspension of judgment, a waiting to see how the evidence bears out.   This assumes that there’s more to reality than our human inquiries can ever discover,  and that more might justify belief in some supernatural being.  This simply assumes some realm beyond the natural, physical realm accessible to human inquiry which might make all the difference in the world.   Why should I grant you this assumption?   It is as much a shot in the dark as the belief in that supernatural being that theists simply cannot relinquish.

If I call myself an atheist, the atheism I have in mind is that which imply a view of reality without God.  It does not confidently states that there is no God, as the very concept of God is very much in question. (It is a vague concept on which there is far from general agreement).   I would not even have clear understanding of the proposition that there is a God (since there are so many different variations of this); I don’t have a clear understanding the confident assertion that there is no God.

But I hold that the traditional, Biblically-based notion of a God, cannot stand up to critical scrutiny.  I don’t find that anyone has ever made a compelling claim for this favored notion of God as really being characteristic of reality.  Now, if you have an example to the contrary, I would be curious enough to listen to you.

Respectfully and in good will,

I remain a philosophical friend.


A Zany Explanation of the Basis for Atheism

I am acquainted with a retired philosophy professor (“RPP”) who frequently makes some surprising (and very doubtful) philosophical claims, among them is his explanation of why people become atheists.   

The RPP has stated the following:

 “ In my opinion, the problem of gratuitous suffering is the main reason why we have atheists in the world today. Though there are many defenses for the benevolence of a God, none of them seem convincing to a neutral student of the issue. This particular incoherence in the God-belief –I have found — has convinced nearly every atheist with whom I have discussed the issue as foremost in the reasons they are atheists (or, at least, agnostics). The philosophical incoherence in the problem of gratuitous suffering is the bottom line and if they cannot be answered, then one should be an atheist.”


In short, our RPP argues that the problem of evil is the main reason for a person to become an atheist.  The problem is one of reconciling the reality of a benevolent God with the fact of evil and suffering in the world.

Notice the assumption behind these contentions: Atheists originally considered that a God was real, but became skeptical because that God’s reality could not be reconciled with gratuitous suffering in the world.  This in turn assumes that not many atheists started out as non-believers.

Both assumptions are false. Many (if not most) atheists come from a secular background (family of non-believers) and have never had to contend with the theological problem of evil in their personal thinking.

Furthermore, the RPP  has also denied the direct claims by non-theists concerning the history and basis for their own philosophy of non-belief.  In reply to a couple of science teachers (Charles and Sam), who stated that they came to atheism by way of their work in the sciences, the RPP replied as follows:

 “ I think you are mistaken about yourself.  I still suspect that the majority of well-trained scientists disbelieve mostly because of the problem of evil and suffering in the world.  Their disbelief can’t be for scientific reasons, since God is beyond scientific investigation.”


Surprisingly, the RPP assumes that he knows better than the other person what that other person is thinking.  “You’re mistaken about yourself”:  but I know what motivated your move to atheism.  This pretense hardly is worth criticizing.   Surely individual scientists can arrive at their disbelieve by a variety of routes;  and when they support their disbelief, surely some reasons they give could arise from their scientific work.  Why claim that Charles and Sam are mistaken about this?  Does the RPP know more about their history then they know themselves?  Does he know how exactly they would justify their non-theistic view?

No, of course he doesn’t. He only pretends to know.

But something else also stands out as confused thinking on the part of the RPP.   He states,

“scientists’ disbelief cannot be based on scientific reasons, because God is beyond scientific investigation”.


At the very least, the statement that  ’God is beyond scientific investigation’ needs to be clarified.  It suggests a reality, namely God, who is beyond the scope of scientific inquiry.  But this begs the question by suggesting that there really is such an entity.  Does the RPP mean to imply this?

An alternative reading  is that you mean that the issue of the reality of a deity is beyond scientific investigation. Here the RPP is right in the sense that ‘ God’ is not the subject of any of the sciences, although belief in God can be (e.g. anthropology).

But this fact does not give him  grounds for you categorical claim regarding  scientists’ recounting of how they arrived at an atheistic or agnostic view.   Moreover, the RPP cannot justify his categorical claim that “God is beyond scientific investigation” if we understand by “God” the “belief in God.”  The latter is what is relevant to a person’s perspective on reality and the belief in a deity is surely subject to scientific investigation.


Another related  point is  that our RPP does not sufficiently distinguish between justification of a belief and origin of a belief.  These are two different things:  One answers the question: How would you justify your conclusion that God does not exist?   The other answers a different question:  How did you come to disbelief in a God?

One is a question concerns the way you would justify and argue for your disbelief in God.   Sometimes this is referred to as the logical problem; what argument can you give in support of your belief (in our case, for your disbelief).

The other question concerns the process or history by which you came to believe or disbelieve as you do.  What events, experiences, interactions, lessons brought you to where you stand today?

If I believe in God, the way that I might rationally defend this belief differs from the story I would tell when relating how I came to believe.   These two need not be related at all, although in some cases they can be related.

If I try to rationally justify my disbelief in any deity, I might offer premises from a variety of sources, including the relevant sciences, history, philosophy, and observations of how the human world works.  In short, I would offer an extended argument, maybe in essay form.

If I try to recount the path that led me to my position of disbelief, I will offer something like a narrative history experiences and events that brought me to disbelieving in any deity.   But in doing this I would not be advancing an argument.  I would merely be telling a story, an his-story, if you like.

Regardless of which sense we apply the question of the basis for non-belief in a deity, the RPP has no grounds for his view that only the theological problem of evil stands behind the atheist’s denial of the reality of a deity.

Mad Men, Philosophers, and the Unreality of Time

Juan Bernal

The Philosophical Pilgrim’s Education :

Early stage: A philosopher said it.  It cannot be nonsense.

Later stage:  A philosopher said it.  It might be sophistry and nonsense.


Wittgenstein in his early interaction with philosophy and philosophers (Russell, Moore, Frege) probably thought that they had important truths to teach.  Later, in his second phase, Wittgenstein recognized that much of traditional philosophy was an exercise in nonsense.


Just when you thought it might be safe to come into the water, our common sense of reality is threatened again.  Now some philosophical colleagues have again brought up the old philosophical declaration that time is not real, but only an illusion of our experience of things.   Just when I was starting to think that my friends in the field of philosophy were reasonable in their declarations on reality and knowledge, they dust off this old bit of philosophical sophistry and nonsense!

“Time is unreal,” they declare.   “Really?” I respond. ” Do we have time to deal with that proposition?  No, not if the proposition is true.”

But maybe I cannot get off this easily.

“Time is unreal.”  Wouldn’t this be the ravings of mad man, similar to his screaming that everyone around him is an alien from outer space?

Maybe so,  but consider the philosophical record (as a prosecutor might say).


Some of this ‘timelessness’ stuff comes from the ancient Greeks, starting with such ancients as Parmenides and Zeno, who held that the appearance of temporal change was an illusion.  According to Parmenides, the One (primary reality) neither was in time nor will be, but is now all at once a single whole.  In other words, absolute reality is a timeless realm in which there is no such thing as temporal succession.  Later Plato follows with his philosophy of the forms (his version of primary reality), according to which the realm of the forms is a timeless realm.  In the Christian era,  theologians, such as Augustine, pick up on this Platonic notion: Augustine wrote of God’s ever-present eternity and wrote that “for God all years stand at once.  Later the Christian philosopher, Boethius, adopted this idea of timelessness.

He states the elements of this philosophy in more detail:

Eternity is the complete possession of eternal life all at once – a notion that becomes clearer from comparison with things temporal. For whatever lives in time moves as something from the past to the future, and there is nothing placed in time that can embrace the whole extent of its life at once. It does not yet grasp tomorrow, and it has already lost yesterday. And even in the life of today you do not live longer than in the transitory moment. That then which is subject to the condition of time, even if .. it has no beginning or end and its life extends through endless time, is still not such as may be right judged eternal. For though its life be endless, it does not grasps and embrace the extent of it all at once but has some parts still to come. . . And so if, following Plato, we wish to give things their right names, let us say that God is eternal, but the world everlasting.*

(from Boethius,  De Consolatione Philosophiae)

* Notice the distinction between everlastingness (sempiternal) and eternal (outside of time, or timeless). For God, time is not real, hence, primary reality is timeless.

Other statements on this notion of eternity:  W.L. Reese says in his Dictionary of Philosophy and Religion  under the topic time,  ”For Spinoza eternity was more basic than time. The latter is an inadequate perception of a limited reality. Reality seen, or conceived, fully, is eternal. Thus, the temporal dimension is in some sense illusory, or partially so.”

Reese also points out that a surprising number of philosophers have argued for the unreality of time. He lists Parmenides and Zeno, as well as F. H. Bradley and  J. E. McTaggart.


According to this philosophy (the unreality of time), it follows that the temporally conditioned world — in which events can be seen as in the past, or currently happening, or might happen in the future —  is supposedly not reality (not absolute reality, as a colleague has told me).   With this summary dismissal of temporal succession as mere illusion, we would have to say also that natural processes in a dynamic world, evolution of life and the histories of cultures and societies are also not real.

Who can accept such nonsense?   Is it even coherent?


The facts of natural processes in a dynamic world, the evolution of life on earth, and the facts of history

…. all speak against such philosophical nonsense, as do the facts of

  • Biology, chemistry, paleo-archaeology, anthropology
  • Common-sense realism, psychology, linguistics,
  • History, including religious history and history of thought
  • The very possibility of linear thought, language, social interaction
  • The sciences of quantum mechanics, probability, chance, chaos.

Surely these are not mere phenomena or illusion, but would be meaningless outside the passage of time.

In his book, A Brief History of Time,  Stephen Hawking, states a few things  about time which imply rejection of the idea that cosmic time is unreal.  In chapter nine, “The Arrow of Time,” he states:

“…the laws of science do not distinguish between the forward and backward direction of time. However, there are at least three arrows of time that do distinguish the past from the future. They are the thermodynamic arrow, the direction of time in which disorder increases; the psychological arrow, the direction of time in which we remember the past and not the future; and the cosmological arrow of time, the direction of time in which the universe expands rather than contrasts. . . “

So, even a great representative of cosmological science states explicitly that time is real: that past really differs from present, which in turn really differs from the future.


Moreover, the notion of a timeless realm (eternity) may not even be a coherent notion.

RG Swinburne, in the Oxford Guide to Philosophy(2005), says the following:

“Most Christian thinkers since the fourth century .. held that God exists outside of time, but in his timeless realm simultaneously acts at and knows about every moment of time. It is .. doubtful that this is a coherent claim.  If God sees some event in 500 BC as it happens and sees some other event in 2000 AD, and all divine seeings are simultaneous with each other, then 500 BC must the same year as 2000 AD, which is absurd.”

The same absurdity can be stated without reference to any divine knowing.  On the view that real reality is timeless, historical events become incoherent. For example, in baseball history, Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs in 1927.  Ruth’s record was broken in 1961 when Roger Maris hit 61 home runs, which was itself broken by Mark McGuire’s 62nd home run in 1998.   The latter claims that Ruth’s previous record was broken by Maris, then by McGuire are incoherent if according to our perspective of the eternal present, McGuire’s feat is identical with Maris’s feat which is identical to Ruth’s feat.

Or more simply: You cannot even say coherently that the smaller child cried because a older child took his toy away.  The two acts  — older child taking the toy and smaller child crying — are simultaneous, thus, identical.  So the explanation as to why the small child cried makes no sense at all!


Of course, the proposition that time is unreal can be understood as just part of another mental exercise, often found in philosophy.  It surely cannot be considered a serious attempt to describe reality.   But don’t underestimate the tendency of some philosopher to promote one or another form of nonsense, among them, the unreality of time.


Twentieth Century Tragedy and a Philosopher’s Blind Spot

Juan Bernal

Commentators have noted  that whereas Heidegger was silent concerning the Holocaust,  he was notably critical of the alienation brought about by modern technologies:  He made statements about the six million unemployed at the beginning of the Nazi regime, but did  not say any word about the six million who were dead at the end of it. (Source: Wikipedia)

Why talk about things that happened over 60-70 years ago?  Why dredge up ugly things from the past?

Some people prefer to leave the past alone for different reasons.  Some prefer to concentrate on problems and issues of the present and those that we shall face in the future; and such people don’t see how the past is relevant to current issues.  But some prefer to ignore the past because they prefer to cover up the past insofar as events of the past do not present humans and human society in a good light.  But generally those who prefer to ignore past history are those for who do not apply the lessons of history; and history surely has lessons to teach us.

In this context, consider the lessons to be learned from the events of the 1930-40s in Germany and Europe, namely, the German Third Reich and the Nazi Holocaust that accompanied it.  Set aside for now the fact that Hitler and his Nazi order in Germany threw the world into the deadly, World War II, caused millions of deaths, injury, and untold destruction.  Instead, consider briefly the systematic Nazi persecution and eventual extermination of human beings deemed sub-humans and enemies of the Nazi order.  These human beings were primarily the Jews, but also included Slavs, Poles, Gypsies, homosexuals, and socialists of various nationalities.  To the extent that the Nazi program to murder millions of people had a racial motivation, the targets were countless people classified as non-Aryan, not just who were Jewish.

What are the lessons to be learned from all that barbarism and systematic murder of millions?  Well, surely one lesson is that even a modern state of fairly well-educated, culturally advanced people can allow itself to be dominated by an inhuman, murderous ideology.

Not only were Germany and other nations that accepted the Nazi ideology nations of a long and respectable Christian tradition (both Protestant and Catholic), nations in which many religious leaders and most good Christian citizens held to long-standing anti-Semitic beliefs, making easier to Hitler and the Nazis to advance their programs.  First, they discriminated against and persecuted Jews,  removed them from society, including those classified as non-Aryans, and eventually murdered and exterminated all those people at various death camps.  The social fact to keep in mind is that Germany and countries like Austria were also leaders in the sciences, philosophy, culture and the arts.  Neither good religious faith, nor advanced sciences and systems of philosophy prevented the leaders of those nations from embracing Hitler and the murderous Nazi ideology.

In this context Martin Heidegger, a leading German philosopher, is representative of that part of German intellectual culture that embraced Hitler and the Nazi ideology, and apparently did not simply “go along” with the Nazis as a prudent move. It is generally agreed that Heidegger enthusiastically endorsed Hitler and the Nation Socialist Movement (Nazi), even if the tenure of his Nazism is a subject of much debate.

In the Spring of 1933 at a conference with some churchmen,  Adolph Hitler stated his view of how the Jews should be treated.

“He saw in the Jews nothing but pernicious enemies of the State and Church, and therefore he wanted to drive the Jews out more and more, especially from academic life and the public professions.”

 (1. See below.)

In the Fall of 1933,  in an address to university students, Martin Heidegger offered the following advice to the students:

“Doctrine and “ideas” will no longer rule your existence. The Fuhrer himself, and only he, is the current and future reality of Germany. His word is your law.”

(2. See Below.)

Clearly, then, Heidegger advised students that Hitler’s words, including those regarding the Jews, was to be their law, along with the ridiculous claim that only Hitler was the reality of Germany.  (Did Heidegger believe this rubbish?)

Although he later modified his adherence to Nazism, Heidegger surely gives us reason for thinking that early in the 1930s he also accepted as “law” the virulent anti-Semitism, which led eventually to the “Final Solution” of the Nazis.   Although there never was a clear retraction from Heidegger, we can hope that this thinking did not reflect his considered views on the subject.


1.  From the essay, “The Jewish Question,” by Guenter Lewy

Hitler, upon engaging in his first measures against the Jews, was well aware of the Church’s long anti-Jewish record.  In his talk with Bishop Berning and Monsignor Steinmann on April 26, 1933, he reminded his visitors that the Church for 1,500 years had regarded the Jews as parasites, had banished them into ghettos, and had forbidden Christians to work for them. “He saw in the Jews nothing but  pernicious enemies of the State and Church, and therefore he wanted to drive the Jews out more and more, especially from academic life and the public professions.”  He, Hitler said, merely intended to do more effectively what the Church had attempted to accomplish for so long. This service to a common cause, and not elevation of race above religion, motivated his hostility toward the Jews.” (page, 336)

Source:  Readings in Western Intellectual Tradition, ed. by Jame L. Catanzaro  (1968, McCutchan Publishing Co.)

2.  Advice to Students *        by Martin Heidegger   (Nov. 3, 1933)

The National Socialist Revolution brings total revolution in our German existence. Given the circumstances of the revolution, it  is up to you to remain tough and energetic, developing yourselves to be ready for anything.

Your will to knowledge demands the experience of what is essential, what is simple, what is great. It is incumbent on you to become the ones who drive farthest and are most deeply committed.

Be hard and righteous in your demands.

Remain clear and secure in your disavowal of what is false.

The knowledge that you struggle for does not lead to conceited self-possession. It reveals itself as the primary quality of the leader who answers the call of the State.  You cannot just be listeners any longer. You are pledged to know, to act, cooperating in the shaping of the new school of the German Geist.  Each of you must now prove his talents and abilities, and use them in the correct place. That occurs when the power of aggressive action within the circle of the whole people surrounds you.

May your loyalty and willingness to follow grow stronger every day and every hour! May your courage to make sacrifices grow constantly greater. This is necessary for the survival of our people, and for the increase of our power.

Doctrine and “ideas” will no longer rule your existence. The Fuhrer himself, and only he, is the current and future reality of Germany. His word is your law. Learn this truth deep with you: “From now on every matter demands determination, and every action requires responsibility.” (page 330)

*From Die Freiberg Studentzeitung (Nov. 3, 1933), translated by James L. Catanzaro

Source:  Readings in Western Intellectual Tradition, ed. by Jame L. Catanzaro  (1968, McCutchan Publishing Co.)