Wednesday 2 September 2009

The Philosopher's God (2009)

From The Philosopher, Volume  LXXXXVII No. 2 Autumn 2009

Or a Philosophy for the Religious?*

By Brenda Almond

'Nothing can come out of nothing, and it is impossible that anything that there is, can perish.'
The philosophical work of Timothy Sprigge is often considered to be too difficult for the non-philosopher, and indeed it does touch upon many of the most profound areas of speculative metaphysics. Nevertheless, Sprigge had a respect, unusual amongst professional philosophers, for those he called 'thoughtful amateurs'. As one Pierfrancesco Basile and Leemon McHenry put it recently in Consciousness, Reality and Value, (2007): 'Rather than isolating philosophy from non-philosophers, and non-philosophers from philosophy, he has sought to bring philosophic clarity to the very issues that deeply concern many individuals.'

But while the philosophical position that Sprigge expounded in his publications and his conversation does indeed have deep and complex dimensions, it was the ethical and religious implications of his metaphysics, and his holistic view of what there is, that provided the main focus of the Oxford conference. But some light can be thrown on what is sometimes called 'the "god" question' by looking first, very briefly, at the way in which Sprigge approached issues in practical ethics, an area in which he made the treatment of non-human animals a central concern.

Sprigge is one philosopher of whom it could rightly be said that his positive advocacy on behalf of non-human animals and the environment flowed directly from his deeply worked out metaphysical views. Early in his career he met the young Peter Singer, then developing his own approach to animal rights. Sprigge was teaching at that time at Sussex University, and had invited Singer to his house in Lewes, where the conversation centred on a visit Singer had made to a small commune that was seeking to live ecologically and independently in a remote country area, consuming only its own resources. The members had raised a pig for food, and had allowed it to live a free and happy life until the time came for its slaughter. Singer, who was already committed to vegetarianism, was seeking to work out his own reaction to the distinctive ethical problems this presented. But where Singer saw this first of all as an issue of practical ethics needing an intellectual justification in essentially utilitarian terms, Sprigge started his search for an answer to such questions from a point of view which was already more metaphysical than ethical, involving, as it did, a reasoned assessment of the possibility of attributing 'mind' to a non-human entity.

This was probably not at this early stage to be interpreted in terms of an already developed metaphysical view of mind as the only reality, but as a simpler and more down-to-earth assessment in which he found it possible to weigh the claims to consideration of a prawn or a scallop and then to accept the dietary implications of his conclusions. With this approach, he exercised a significant influence on the early Australian academic movement towards a philosophically-based vegetarianism, and once convinced of the validity of this intellectual approach, he accepted the ethical claims it made on his own life with something like the conviction and commitment of a religious believer.

Later, Sprigge's exploration of the moral standing of animals extended to other aspects of the natural world, including its non-animate aspects, as his concept of the mental moved away from the approach to the philosophy of mind and language engaged in by such twentieth-century philosophers as Ryle and Ayer, and back towards the idealist metaphysics of nineteenth-century thinkers such as Bradley and McTaggart. Indeed, it is possible to think of Sprigge as himself a reincarnation of a nineteenth-century philosopher ? something also noted by Richard M. Gale who writes: 'He does philosophy like someone who has just arrived in a time machine from Cambridge of the 1890s.' This was not intended as a slur, and Gale goes on to congratulate Sprigge for his courage and conviction in swimming so strongly against the prevailing philosophical tide. Nevertheless, Sprigge did in fact owe much to the analytic tradition, to logical positivism and the standards of rigour in meaning and truth demanded by the verification test, and to the philosophical influence, as far as method is concerned, of A.J. Ayer. But the influence of the metaphysicians was in the end stronger, nor was the nineteenth century by any means Sprigge's stopping?point. Indeed, his return to the past took him further back - to Berkeley, whose impeccable logic he appreciated even while identifying its limitations, and to Spinoza, who was probably his greatest inspiration. But Sprigge's own ontological inquiry, if seriously pursued, would really end, I would suggest, more than two millennia earlier, with the metaphysical world-view of the ancient Greek philosopher Parmenides.

I do not intend to follow him there, however, because what I wanted to explore in the talk I gave at the Oxford conference is the point where philosophy and religion ? often opposed to each other in twentieth-century universities, where learning to refute historic arguments for the existence of God became almost a ground-clearing exercise for new recruits to philosophy in the second half of that century - reach out and touch each other in Sprigge's personal exploration of what there is and who we are.


Religion for Sprigge, as for most people brought up in Britain at his time, could be presumed to be the Christian religion, although he came to be profoundly interested in other world religions, especially Hinduism and Buddhism. Most forms of the Christian religion, however, pose problems for philosophers schooled in the empiricist tradition. Belief is not subject to the will, and the empiricist is a natural sceptic. Christianity, however, unlike some other world faiths, seeks adherence to a creed and has traditionally hated heresy. Sprigge's leaning towards the idealist philosophers was combined with what is perhaps best described as a personal search for an understanding of religion that does not depend on unverifiable factual claims but can nevertheless be supported by rigorous philosophical reasoning. This sets him apart from those philosophers who believe it is impossible for philosophy to provide a metaphysical underpinning for Christianity, amongst whom he places Descartes, Kierkegaard, William James and John Macmurray. His list also includes Pascal, but the prominence he gives to a long passage from that thinker in the Introduction to The God of Metaphysics, suggests that he had more sympathy than he cared to admit ? perhaps even to himself ? with the personal and inspirational, even mystical, terms in which the God of Christianity is described in Pascal's Pensées:
The God of Christians does not consist of a God who is simply the author of mathematical truths and the order of the elements: that is the job of the pagans and Epicureans. He does not consist simply of a God who exerts his providence over the lives and property of people in order to grant a happy span of years to those who worship him: that is the allocation of the Jews. But the God of Abraham, the God of Jacob, the God of the Christians is a God of love and consolation; he is a God who fills the souls and hearts of those he possesses; he is a God who makes them inwardly aware of their wretchedness and his infinite mercy, who unites with them in the depths of their soul, who makes them incapable of any other end but himself.

Pascal, Pensées
This personal God and this personal form of Christianity was, it seems to me, one that Sprigge abandoned if at all, only with reluctance. Indeed, I believe that his exploration of the metaphysicians' god was a quest for the God that twentieth-century analytic philosophy had made it so difficult to reconcile with respect for the pre-eminence of reason. His account of Kierkegaard's response to the difficulty of reconciling reason and religion sums up the dilemma: 'Thus to be a Christian demands that we make the leap of a doubly (at least apparently) irrational faith. It is irrational, first, because it is only through having faith in it that we discover it to be certainly true, and secondly, because the very content of our belief is apparently logically absurd.'

Kierkegaard concluded that a passionate commitment to the absurd is in fact the essence of Christianity. In contrast, Sprigge describes his own position as a synthesis of two more rigorous philosophical systems, Bradley's and Spinoza's, and he disowns any interest in defending a personal God, preferring to follow Bradley on this point. He writes: 'Whether we think the Absolute can reasonably be called 'God' or not, Bradley is surely right that it is not a person.' Nevertheless, he does go on to make a concession to an at least quasi-personal perspective, when he says that there could be a sense in which, whether called Absolute or God, it includes in itself all persons. The difference, he says in Theories of Existence, between this and the God of Christianity is simply that 'it did not create, but is, the universe.'

He moves closer to an explanation of what this must mean in his account of the philosophy of T. H. Green in The God of Metaphysics. Green's name for what Hegel had called the 'Absolute Idea' and which others called the 'Absolute' was the 'Eternal Consciousness' and its essential characteristic was that it consists in a single eternal mind, in which our minds are in some way included. Whether or not Green's 'one spiritual self-conscious being' is the God of the Judaic religions is not crucial to this broad thesis, and Sprigge acknowledged that idealist philosophers have differed in their views about Christianity and even about the existence and nature of God. But he believed that in claiming that what we think of as the natural world is in some way or other dependent on mind, these philosophers had provided 'the best purely philosophical case for a religious view of the world of any metaphysicians.'

Green himself, who was the son of an Anglican clergyman, was 23 when Darwin's evolutionary theory plunged the scientific and theological worlds into controversy. It is not unreasonable to suppose, then, that Green's motivation was indeed, as Sprigge suggests, a desire 'to save a religious view of the world from developments in natural science and biblical criticism which threatened traditional Christianity.'

Indeed, Sprigge later repeats this assessment even more emphatically:
... while the whole idealist movement of that time provided cheer to those who feared that their religious outlook was under threat from history and science, it was Green above all, together with Edward Caird and his brother John, who offered a form of Christianity claiming to be intellectually, morally, and emotionally sustainable. Thus there can be no doubt of the religious, and more especially Christian, relevance of Green's God.
Sprigge's own rejection of the idea of a personal God might seem to distance him from the God of these philosophers. But Christianity includes other important elements apart from belief in a personal God, some of which it is easier to accommodate within Sprigge's philosophy, if only as metaphor, and it is clear that some bringing together of the essence of the Christian religion and abstract philosophical reasoning was indeed an important aspect of his philosophical quest. For he undoubtedly had a deep understanding of something he described as an unarticulated yearning ? a 'cosmic longing' - for what the great religions, but especially Christianity, can offer to their followers, and I believe it is the credence he gave to the phenomenon of 'religious consciousness' that is the key to understanding his commitment to absolute idealism.

Varieties of Idealism

In Theories of Existence, which was published in 1984, Sprigge wrote:
'The main message of absolute idealism . . . is that we are each aspects of a larger whole which has its own larger life, and that if we follow the leadings which come as from the deeper levels of our being, which are dimly continuous with the whole to which we belong, we will gain the sense that our strivings to fulfil our own potentialities play a part in some deep, if largely hidden, significance possessed by the universe as a whole.' 
 This is another way of putting something that Spinoza had expressed in terms of a simile in a letter to a contemporary. Imagine, he said, a parasitic worm living in the bloodstream and trying to understand and interpret its surroundings. The worm would see each drop of blood as an independent entity; it would not be able to recognize the part played by individual drops in the bloodstream as a whole ? nor could it understand that the more significant unit is the bloodstream as a whole, rather than the droplets of which it is constituted. But even the bloodstream taken as a whole is inadequately understood until it is seen in relation to all the other fluids in the body and to the body as a whole. If we see our physical selves as separate independent entities, our understanding is limited, Spinoza suggested, in the same way as that of the worm.

The 'whole' in Spinoza's simile has no immediate religious significance, but Sprigge himself is ready to make a fairly direct connection between a holistic and a religious account of the universe. He writes:
'A not strictly philosophical question is whether the existence of the Absolute has any real religious significance. I suggest that it does, if only because it justifies a certain cosmic emotion which we sometimes feel towards the Whole of things and through which we conceive the idea that in spite of all its horrors the world is essentially worthwhile and good.' 
Sprigge described himself as a 'pantheistic idealist.' Is it possible, I wonder, to read the choice of that term as a signal that he did not see himself as either an atheist or a humanist ? that he did not intend to abolish God, or even the monotheistic hypothesis? For, paradoxically, a pantheist for whom the apparent variety of the universe merges into a single whole that can be described as god, is necessarily a monotheist. Nevertheless, Sprigge does accept the loss of the individuality of human persons that characterizes absolute idealism - the kind of idealism represented by Spinoza in which God and nature come together in a broader cosmic consciousness which knows itself ? is capable of being self-aware.

But it is hard to reconcile this with Christian doctrine, which seems deeply dependent on a conception of God as set apart from the world of individual human beings ? in theological terms, as transcendent rather than immanent. Sprigge argues, however, that to conceive of God as an all-encompassing consciousness that coincides with nature itself is not to lower our conception of God, but to raise our conception of nature. (Theories of Existence) This remark, and the general position it indicates, may well be enough to place him in that long line of thinkers he so clearly admired, who wanted to open the way to a richer account of the core elements of religious belief and to overcome, in the words of another commentator on Sprigge's work, 'the dualisms of this world and the next, of body and spirit, and that of our minds and god's.' (Consciousness, Reality and Value)

The Unitarian influence

Given what I would see as Sprigge's reluctance to relinquish completely the spirit and the ethical essence of Christianity that had been part of his own education and his broader cultural context, it is perhaps not surprising that Sprigge found a congenial spirit in the form that these took in the Unitarian tradition ? a movement which has a strong philosophical base reaching back to the Socinians in the sixteenth century. Indeed, he dedicated his book The God of Metaphysics to St. Mark's Unitarian Church in Edinburgh and by his choice, his funeral service was conducted in a Unitarian church in Sussex where he had returned in retirement.

Described by one of its early chroniclers as holding that no specific creed is necessary for salvation, Unitarians believe in freedom of thought in religion, and that the good life is more important than correct belief. Some see Unitarianism simply as an undogmatic version of the Christian faith. While it rejects belief in the Trinity and does not accept the divinity of Jesus, it clings to the rituals and pattern of orthodox Christianity in its church-like structure and services, and until the end of the nineteenth century the movement was regarded, and saw itself, as another dissenting nonconformist Christian denomination. However, the absence of dogma, and the lack of any requirement to subscribe to a creed, has caused most other Christian groups to reject its claim to membership of the wider church and, indeed, today's Unitarians include not only those who reject the doctrine of the Trinity but also agnostics and avowed atheists.

Its roots, however, are deeper than this. Probably the best identifiable point of emergence was the sixteenth century ? a time when the response to heresy was likely to be torture and burnings. Amongst those whom Unitarians claim as their distinguished forebears are Erasmus, Martin Luther, Lord Shaftesbury, and Mary Wollstonecraft. The movement was established as a denomination by the scientist and philosopher of religion, Joseph Priestley, and its then aim was to restore early Christianity and get rid of the accretions of centuries of distortion and dogma. James Martineau, author of The Seat of Authority in Religion, argued that only reason and conscience (both given us by God), and not faith, should be the ground of religion.

In North America, the movement took a more nature-based direction and Ralph Waldo Emerson, a writer from whom Sprigge drew inspiration, held that that God was to be found in nature as a whole. Emerson, who had been a Unitarian Minister in Boston moved to England for a time, where he was influenced by the English Romantic poets such as Coleridge and Wordsworth.

Philosophers like Hume, in the eighteenth century argued that when belief in miracles and the infallibility of the Bible went out of the window, Christianity, too, was abolished. But this was not the Unitarian view. As one historian of the movement, H. Gow, explains:
'It is of great importance for those who wish to understand Unitarianism to realize that criticism of the Bible and disbelief in the miracles arose amongst them as the result of a deeper religious faith, and not merely a keener historical inquiry.' - The Unitarians(1928)
Contemporary Unitarians put this in a different way. They might, for example, say that Jesus, not being divine, nevertheless saves by his life and his example. Sprigge doubted that Jesus himself even claimed divinity in the sense that it is understood in today's churches. He wrote ' . . . as a Unitarian, I doubt that Jesus did really claim to be God'.

The philosophers' god

So was there room in Sprigge's philosophical system for the philosopher's god? I think this is a question Sprigge's work raises rather than answers and I should like to end by citing something I myself once wrote, which I think Sprigge would have endorsed. I presented these reflections as those of an imaginary 'wise woman' called Sophia. Sophia's message was this:
'You didn't think, because there is nothing separate that was mind, there is no mind. So you should not think that, if there is nothing separate which is God, there is no God; or if nothing separate which is soul, that there is no soul. It is not absurd, or ultimately incomprehensible, to say that the world is God, mind, soul; that this is the only path to immortality; and that understanding this is the only peace of mind.' - The Philosophical Quest (1988)
But the last words belong to Sprigge himself. In summarising Kierkegaard's views, he wrote in The God of Metaphysics: 

' . . . at every moment the assurance of the Christian hope is at risk from the offence it gives to the intellect; therefore it must remain a continual struggle to believe it.'
It seems to me that that was not only Kierkegaard's dilemma, but also, whatever his personal intellectual preferences, and no matter where his own philosophical reasoning had taken him, that of the author of The God of Metaphysics.

* This is an edited version of the paper presented to the Philosophical Society's 2009 Conference in honour of the British philosopher, Timothy Sprigge.

About the author: Professor Brenda Almond is author of Exploring Ethics and is a former President of the Phiosophical Soceity of England

Tuesday 1 September 2009

REVIEW: Re-Enchanting the World (2009)

From The Philosopher, Volume LXXXXVII No. 2

Karl-Marx-Hof, one of the best-known Gemeindebauten in Vienna,

Re-enchanting the world

By Martin Cohen

'The fate of our times is characterised by the rationalisation and intellectualisation and, above all, by the disenchantment of the world'
Or so Max Weber declared in 1917, Joshua Landy and Michael Saler remind us, in introducing this engaging 'smorgasbord' of a book, which ranges freely from environmentalism and architecture on one hand to Gnosticism and poetry on the other. That's quite a stretch, but then, as the editors explain, the idea behind the book is that there are "a variety of secular and conscious strategies for re-enchantment, held together by their common aim of filling a God-shaped void."

In their view, disenchantment is easier claimed than achieved. They point out that both Marx (who conjures with the spectre of capitalism, for example) and Nietzsche's writings, abound with metaphors and similes of enchantment. Landy and Saler see a "single, coruscating work' - the Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947) by Max Horkheimer and Theodore Adorno, as epitomising the view of modernity as inherently irrational. Worse, as Freud put it in Civilisation and its Discontents (1930), the fear that the repressive cultural forces of modernity in combination with the advances in science and technology must eventually result in one final irrational act - humankind's self-destruction.

Mind you (and the book veers from the serious to the trivial freely), when Western intellectuals speak of disenchantment today, they often have in mind a less apocalyptic state of affairs, and point merely at a "gradual decline in mystery".
Little by little , physics has extended its reach into more and more areas previously occupied by metaphysics, as apparently inexplicable natural phenomena have found themselves susceptible, one by one, to strictly worldly explanations. Days of darkness [eclipses, presumably - ed.] mean nothing more than that the moon is in the way of the sun. Rainbows are neither visitations from Iris or reminders of a covenant, but merely the result of a prismatic refraction. And if a given mental illness can be cured by medication, then it is more likely to be an instance of a chemical imbalance than one of diabolic possession. 
Perhaps this is because, as Linda Simon, in the second essay in the book, says, quoting William James:
[T]o understand life by concepts is to arrest its movement, cutting it up into bits as if with scissors, and immobilising these in our logical herbarium where, comparing them as dried specimens, we can ascertain which of them statically includes or excludes which other. James himself later embraced experiments in psychic phenomena declaring that having experienced first hand the abilities of one medium in particular, that for him science now lay "in the dust'.
Not so for the authors here. Many of the essays claim (rather countervailingly) that modern science can also 'restore mystery' to the world. Andrea Nightingale unconvincingly offers that: "Science... becomes, paradoxically enough, the single most powerful generator of the marvellous." Another dubious search for re-enchantment is surely Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht's survey of spectator sports where he finds "secular epiphanies' in the semi-sacred space of the stadium. However, this is not to say that the essay is not thought provoking in a sociological sense.

In many ways, Nightingale's essay, the first one in the volume, is also one of the best. After surveying the history of disenchantment, from Augustine who spoke of Christians being 'homeless' on Earth, to Descartes 's and Francis Bacon who both denigrate wonder as 'broken knowledge' ("contemplation broken off, or losing itself" in Bacon's phrase) and finally on to Weber and Heidegger, she concentrates on two images- the idea that ecology is the correct ordering of the place in which we dwell, and that science and technology essentially try to create an artificial dwelling that is some distance from our natural home - "a home away from home". Nightingale offers instead a different approach using the example of Thoreau's retreat to a shed in the woods.

But the problem, of course, is more than physical. As she points out, Augustine also speaks of us being 'distended' in time - simultaneously pulled into the past (memoria) and in to the future (expectatio). William James summarised the existential aspects of this (as a separate essay notes) by saying "What we are is always lined up with the notion of what we might be, or might have been". But Augustine describes his experience as of being 'scattered in time' - "scattered, because we are never stable, never in one temporal or bodily place". Only the afterlife, outside time, offers a permanent solution. Prior to this, we may, temporarily, be able to find escape through the act of focussing our attention on God. Augustine puts it like this, in his characteristically dismal way:
When I am sitting at home, a lizard catching lies or a spider entrapping them as they rush into its web often fascinates me.... When my heart becomes the receptacle of distractions of this nature and the container for a mass of empty thoughts, then too my prayers are often interrupted and distracted. 
It is unlikely that Augustine would have been sympathetic to Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht's survey of spectator sports! But Augustine 's own rejection of nature is "hardly appealing, offering no viable mode of dwelling responsibly on earth", says Nightingale.

Nor to her are Descartes' prejudices any more acceptable. In the Discourse on Method, Descartes compares his strategy for thinking with that of a builder of a house saying:

... one of the first [ideas] that occurred to me was that there is less perfection in a work produced by several persons than in one produced by as single hand. Thus we notice that buildings conceived and completed by a single architect ae usually more beautiful and better planned than those remodelled by several person using ancient walls of various vintages along with new ones.

Descartes hypocritically then goes on to extend his, already rather dubious, metaphor to the fields of science and philosophy, finding in both a hodgepodge of conclusions. He warns: "It is true that we never tear down all the houses in a city just to rebuild them in a different way and to make the streets more beautiful; but we do see that individual owners often have theirs torn down and rebuilt."

And Descartes soon takes on the remodelling of more than just his 'own house' , deciding that the whole of nature is "essentially a machine that has no life or agency", as Nightingale puts it. Descartes' new 'dwelling' excludes animals to be left howling outside. Worse still, "Even when animals try to make themselves heard, Descartes just hears bells and whistles instead of cries of pain."

A fascinating contrast with Thoreau 200 years later. Thoreau, who delights in comparisons between man and nature! Curiously the minutiae of the natural world that Augustine particularly despises is exactly that which Thoreau praises.
What is man but a mass of thawing clay? The ball of the human finger is but a drop congealed. The fingers and toes flow to their extent from the thawing mass of the body... is not the hand a spreading palm leaf with its lobes and veins? The ear may be regarded fancifully as a lichen on the side of the head The nose is a manifest congealed drop or stalactite. 
In another well-known passage too, Thoreau compares the philosopher to "a strong and beautiful bug which came out of the dry leaf of an old table of apple wood, which had stood in a farmer's kitchen for sixty years... [hatched] from an egg deposited in the living tree many years earlier still."

Nightingale finds Thoreau 'rococo', which he is, and Descartes contradictory and incoherent, which he is too. She sees Descartes as praising science and its powers on one hand, and claiming the pre-eminence of a non-material world of mind on the other. Given the origin of the Discourse (as a collection of diverse scientific papers collected over some years and hastily reassembled under the famous philosophical introduction) this should perhaps have been less surprising. But Nightingale is surely right to re-emphasise Descartes' role in the disenchantment of the world:
First, the belief in the essential superiority of human over non-human beings. Second the claim that this superiority gives humans the right to dominate nature. Certainly the majority of people in the West do not believe that we have ethical responsibilities towards animals (let alone plants, rivers, etc.) And, while most people would deny that animals are machines (as Descartes claimed) we nonetheless treat our machines with more consideration than the animals that feed us. 
Above all, Nightingale says, we reflect 'Cartesian thinking' in our aspiration to become independent from nature and in our quest to make death 'optional'. "These beliefs and ideologies justify our hostile assaults on the earth, and our rejection of nature as the basis of human dwelling."

Other essays dwell rather too long on intellectual trivia, sprinkled with numerous references to Heidegger (whose omnipresence, both in this essay and in the volume generally seems to have more to do with intellectual fashion than any argumentative purpose), but Michael Saler's essay on 'Waste Lands and Silly Valleys: Wittgenstein, Mass-Culture and Re-Enchantnment' offers some refreshing insights into Wittgenstein, including his love-affair with American detective pulp fiction, which he described, correctly, as having a higher philosophical value than much that passes for philosophical debate.
How people could read Mind if they could read Street & Smith beats me. If philosophy has anything to do with wisdom, there's certainly not a grain of truth in Mind, and quite often a grain in the detective stories. 
So wrote Wittgenstein in a letter to his friend Noel Malcolm, who supplied his addiction from the United States. Indeed, there is a shift in Wittgenstein from the early search for 'logical facts' and the elevation of reason to the later explorations of the indeterminacy of meaning and the praising of the playfulness and plain 'silliness' of language. Detective Fiction really was more valuable than academic prose - more playful and more able to "be 'silly' and experiment". Or as Wittgenstein put it:
What I give is the morphology of the expression. I show that is has kinds of uses of which you had not dreamed. In philosophy one feels forced to look at a concept in a certain way. What I do is suggest , or even invent, other ways of looking at it Thus your mental cramp is relieved... 
Joshua Landy and Michael Saler have surely tried something of the same approach here. Even so, their quest for re-enchantment is founded upon the idea that "there is a genuine urgency, an existential pathos" about a disenchanted world, and that the world needs to be re-enchanted. Human flourishing requires it, and this time it must be "with dignity, which is to say in concord with secular rationality, in full awareness of pluralism and contingency."

That is a tall order, but then, this is rightly an ambitious book.
The Philosopher's verdict: secular epiphany

The Re-Enchantment of the World

Secular Magic in a Rational Age
Edited by Joshua Landy and Michael Saler
Stanford University Press, 2009 pp 387 ISBN 0-8047-5299-2 hb

The Last Idealist (2009)

From The Philosopher, Volume LXXXXVII No. 2

A tribute to Timothy L. S. Sprigge   
By Leemon McHenry

Timothy Sprigge was the last of the great British Idealists beginning with George Berkeley and continuing into the nineteenth century with F. H. Bradley, Bernard Bosanquet, Edward Caird and T. H. Green. I say the 'last idealist' of this tradition because Sprigge was certainly an anomaly in the twentieth century. His actual birth date of 14 January 1932 was just exactly a hundred years off the mark, for his thought and character were distinctively that of a nineteenth century English gentleman who wrote philosophy in the grand style of an Absolute Idealist. He also appreciated and was much influenced by American philosophers of this period as well. William James and Josiah Royce figure prominently in his idealist metaphysics, both in terms of methodology and content. Charles Hartshorne enthusiastically said of Sprigge that he was the leading expert on American philosophy in England and had very few competitors in this specialty.

Given that the Anglo-American orthodoxy of the twentieth century regarded idealism as an antiquated relic thoroughly abandoned with the critiques of Bertrand Russell, G. E. Moore and Sprigge's own teacher, A. J. Ayer, Sprigge choose as a title for his magnum opus one that would almost certainly guarantee failure--The Vindication of Absolute Idealism (1983). For the most part, it attracted attention for his bold affront to philosophical fashion and gained a following with those who sought a third way between the banality of analysis and irrationality of Continental trends. His other major works include the large scale studies: James and Bradley: American Truth and British Reality (1993) and The God of Metaphysics: Being a Study of the Metaphysics and Religious Doctrines of Spinoza, Hegel, Kierkegaard, T. H. Green, Bernard Bosanquet, Josiah Royce, A. N. Whitehead, Charles Hartshorne, and Concluding with a Defense of Pantheistic Idealism (2006). At the time of his death he was working on The Phenomenology of Thought and a concluding chapter of a Festschrift responding to critics. Always the philosopher, on his deathbed he said that the experience provided the opportunity to write a phenomenology of dying.

Against the Flow

In an age devoted to bite-sized analytical problems and unquestioned scientific materialism, the last idealist constructed his philosophical system at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland--a stronghold against the orthodoxy established by Oxford and Cambridge. Edinburgh was one of the few places in the United Kingdom where one could study the history of philosophy and particularly the idealism of Plato, Leibniz, Kant and F. H. Bradley. It was in this connection that Alfred North Whitehead referred to the city as "the capital of British metaphysics, haunted by the shade of Hume". Sprigge occupied the Regis Chair of Logic and Metaphysics following in the footsteps of Norman Kemp Smith, A. D. Richie and W. H. Walsh. He was also elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in a city that he described as a "breath of life to a metaphysician."

In contrast to the analytical philosophy bereft of wisdom, or a purely academic and professional approach that treats philosophy as a sort of technical problem-solving, Sprigge's system was constructed not only as a quest to find a satisfactory view of the universe but also as a search for the principles by which one could live in the world. He argued that the only reality is consciousness and developed his views in opposition to the dominant trends of the twentieth century. While the physical sciences construct theories about the phenomenal world, it is only by way of introspection and empathy that we grasp the true nature of reality as consciousness in all of its manifestations in nature.

The noumenal world, or the world as it is in itself, stands behind the phenomena as the true reality. This, for Sprigge, consists of innumerable interacting centres or streams of consciousness. But consciousness is a matter of degrees beginning with sentient experience of the most basic units of reality to the conscious experience of human beings and ending with the all-embracing Absolute. Our ordinary common sense, he thought, was too incoherent to grasp the true nature of the universe. It serves our practical purposes and allows us to interact and communicate about the most mundane things, but ultimately fails as a satisfactory metaphysics. Similarly, what Sprigge called the "world of science," serves practical purposes to a much higher degreeóphysics, engineering, chemistry, biology, medicineóbut only gives us abstract structures of the phenomenal world. So, for Sprigge, the speculative metaphysician seeks the reality behind the appearances, a world of direct acquaintance, and the scientist who refines common sense seeks an account of the world of description.

A Metaphysics of Consciousness

Sprigge's methodology borrows much from William James and Josiah Royce who began the philosophical quest by an analysis of the specious present of one's own consciousness. As he made the point
"if a philosopher would grasp reality in its concreteness, and arrive at a philosophic position adequate to such grasp, he must take the flow of his own experience as his paradigm example of the true pulse of existence, and continually check the results of his reasonings by reference back to it."

- Two Centuries of Philosophy in America, ed. P. Caws (1980)
He believed that James's Principles of Psychology (1890) provided the finest analysis of concrete experience particularly through the development of the concepts of the specious present and the stream of consciousness. From this pivotal work, he saw that James, Royce and Alfred North Whitehead all produced metaphysical systems that generalized from the psychological concept of the specious present. So, the basis of Sprigge's ontology, namely the momentary centres of experience, has an affinity to James's drops of experience as one finds in his Essays in Radical Empiricism (1912) and Whitehead's actual occasions in Process and Reality (1929). He also notes that in Royce's The World and the Individual (1899) the specious present plays a much grander role as the unifying experience of the Absolute.
Once one has a grasp of the intrinsic essence of a moment of consciousness, one has the clearest conception of what it is to be a noumenal reality, and by empathy one develops a sense of what it is like to be another organism. Such a grasp of concrete reality is far greater than any conception one might form of what is thought to be purely physical or abstract reality. Sprigge initially developed this idea in his paper "Final Causes" which was made famous in Thomas Nagel's paper "What Is It Like to Be a Bat?" Thus, whereas others flirt with panpsychism as a possible solution to the mind-body problem and the problem of emergence, Sprigge embraced it unabashedly for forty years of his career.

The monistic metaphysics that Sprigge espoused owes much to Spinoza, for his views on the unity of God and Nature accord closely with the Rationalist master. It was, however, Bradley's analysis of relations that formed the basis of Sprigge's acceptance of the notion of a final unity. Whereas Bradley argued that all thinking about plurality and relations distort the true nature of reality, Sprigge developed the concept of holistic relations as a means of understanding whole-part relations. Working from within the stream of experience, Sprigge argued that the relation of momentary durations is felt to be stronger at one end of the relation rather than the other thus giving us the experience of asymmetrical relations in temporal passage, but that any such stream also feels itself as part of a whole. Neither spatial, temporal nor causal relations provide the model for the sort of relation that Sprigge believes fundamental. Instead, he viewed the specious present of a moment of consciousness as his paradigm of a holistic relation and of how parts form wholes. Ultimately, he argued that the plurality of finite centres of experience culminates in one final whole, which occurs as one grand epochal moment or frozen specious present. This is quite close to what Spinoza called 'God' or Bradley called 'the Absolute.'

Eternal vs. Temporal: Critique of Process Philosophy

While Sprigge admired Whitehead's panpsychism, he was one of the most acute critics of process philosophy. His main line of attack focused on process philosophers' attempts to explain becoming and perishing in the world and the development of novelty in a creative universe as in, for example, Whitehead's Process and Reality. Sprigge also criticized the process philosopher's notion of time and the central idea of process theologyóthat God is in process with the world. His central objection to Whitehead centers on the notion of the perishing of subjective immediacy. 
Whitehead's explanation of process involved a mechanism of prehension and objectification whereby an earlier moment must lose the immediacy of subjective experience in order to be prehended by a successor moment and thereby be objectified by the successor. Sprigge argued that he could make no sense of a later experience containing an earlier one as opposed to some manner of simply echoing it and that it was unintelligible how an experience that has lost subjective immediacy could be the same particular as an element in a successor. (The Vindication of Absolute Idealism, 1983) For him, this is because all moments of time are ontologically fixed within the experience of the Absolute, and there is in reality no loss of subjective immediacy. This involves a revisionary conception of time beginning with Parmenides and Plato and continuing through to Spinoza, Bradley and J. M. E. McTaggart.

For Sprigge, time is unreal. This means our ordinary common sense conception of time as perpetually perishing and divided up into a determinate, non-actual past, a determinate, actual present, and a non-determinate, non-actual future is seriously flawed. In other words, from our limited, finite perspective in time, sub specie temporis, the present is real, the past fixed but quite gone, and the future to be decided, but from the perspective of the final reality of the Absolute, sub specie aeternitatis, all of time happens at once. Sprigge thus argued for an eternalistic theory of time that combines the views of Spinoza, Bradley and McTaggart with Santayana.

Each moment of time, each present conscious experience, is intrinsically present and only relatively past or future. In this regard, the moments of time are more akin to points in space. Sprigge fully accepted Santayana's argument on the reference of propositions. For what makes propositions about time true or false is a reality to which they correspond or fail to correspond. So, for example, if the proposition that "Timothy Sprigge died on 11 July 2007" is true, it is because the reality of Sprigge's death on that day makes the proposition true and this reality does not fade or perish as time passes. In fact, for Sprigge, his whole life from birth to death forms a space-time worm within the Absolute and is just "eternally there" as he liked to say. In this connection, he found Whitehead's notion of objectification in God to be wholly unsatisfactory since it amounted to claiming that our past lives, and indeed the whole past universe, become nothing but a kind of cosmic memory in the mind of God rather than the intrinsic presence of subjectivity eternally part of the Absolute.

Ethics Reconsidered: Against Anthropocentricism

Part of Sprigge's aim to construct a satisfactory theory concerned the ethical implications of the metaphysical principles. The panpsychism he developed has far-reaching consequences for how we should respect the noumenal worlds of sentient creatures, including, of course, human beings but extending far beyond our traditional ethical thinking. Sprigge's ethics stands opposed to Christian thought or Kantian deontology, according to which we only have direct moral obligations to other human beings or, more generally, rational agents. His realm of moral obligation includes non-human animals and even the environment, for sentience spread through the universe, requires that we treat it with the respect due to noumenal experience. He called his view, "way of life utilitarianism," primarily developed in his Rational Foundations of Ethics. Sprigge owes much to the utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham in that it was Bentham who argued that the basis of moral consideration was sentience rather than the capacity to speak or think. In accordance with Bentham, Sprigge makes a case for the role of pleasure and pain in the determination of value but rejects any utilitarian cost/benefit analysis whereby certain intrinsically bad actions might turn out to be morally permissible.

Sprigge was convinced that the focus on a materialist or physicalist metaphysics had produced a distortion of our moral sense, and, at its worst, a justification for cruel and callous practices such as factory farming, vivisection and the destruction of eco-systems. It is here that common sense, science, industry and government are allies in immorality. Descartes' conception of non-human animals as mindless machines allowed the early vivisectionists to dismiss any qualms they felt about the suffering of such creatures in laboratories. This coupled with biblical views about man's God-given place in the hierarchy has produced the dominant tendency to treat non-human animals merely as objects to be manipulated, eaten or exploited for any purpose. Sprigge fought back with a system of thought that exposed the blatant anthropocentricism and he practised what he preached. He converted to vegetarianism and became chairman for Advocates for Animals, a group in Edinburgh that was involved in campaigns against animal experimentation. In this role, Sprigge also participated in international conferences devoted to exploring alternatives to the use of animals in medical research.

Sprigge found religion in the Absolute, but religion stripped of mythology, superstition and intolerance. Late in life he became a member of the Unitarian Church, first in Edinburgh and then in Brighton, near his home in Lewes. Here he seemed to have found some sort of spiritual community among heterodox theists who sought a less dogmatic form of religious belief. He re-wrote the Lord's Prayer along Spinozistic lines while believing that it was pointless to pray to a God that was identical to the universe and could not alter the course of time that was already fixed. In his final illness, he requested that no animal parts be used in a heart valve operation. 
One is reminded of George Bernard Shaw who said that his will should contain directions for his funeral: his coffin was to be followed not by mourning coaches, but by herds of oxen, sheep, swine, flocks of poultry, and a small travelling aquarium of live fish, all wearing white scarves in honor of the man who perished rather than eat his fellow creatures.

Final Assessment

Idealism is much less an option today than it was in the nineteenth century because of its association with universal, absolute religious principles and totalitarian, imperialistic political ideas. The decline of such thinking, especially in England, was also marked by the skepticism generated after the senseless carnage of World War I. For Sprigge, all of this was irrelevant to his quest for a satisfactory metaphysics.

Today, the idealistic doctrines are generally regarded as historically interesting but philosophically inconsequential. Idealism is largely viewed as implausible because of its disregard for the physical and biological sciences. Sprigge could rightly be accused of sidestepping science in his attempt to arrive at first principles, and he was well aware that his ignorance of science was a shortcoming of his philosophy. How far metaphysical thinking could get at first principles without the aid of detailed empirical studies was a great source of concern. He admired Spinoza and Whitehead for their scientifically informed metaphysics.

Moreover, while Sprigge followed Bradley and Royce in defending the sharp distinction between appearance and reality, or between the investigations of structural phenomena undertaken by physical science and those of introspective psychology, it is unlikely that physicists, chemists and biologists see themselves as engaged in anything less than a quest to know reality. Scientists do not see themselves as investigating what is merely abstract or phenomenal but rather an underlying reality. 
As far as the critiques of Bertrand Russell, G. E. Moore and Alfred Ayer are concerned, the charge that metaphysical construction is a sort of Hegelian megalomania has not quite the force it had in the first half of the 1900s. The anti-metaphysical, linguistic methodologies ran their course and eventually faced fatigue, but the idea that idealism could serve as a metaphysical foundation for any system adequate for the sciences is upheld by relatively few. 
Sprigge's contribution to philosophy is difficult to access given the neglect of his fellow countrymen. He is more widely appreciated in the United States as an interpreter of classical American philosophy, especially James, Royce and Santayana, and in the European continent as a scholar of Spinoza and Bradley. What is little understood is the highly original manner in which he constructed his own system of metaphysics, which contains a penetrating and insightful grasp of consciousness and the upshot of this for moral behavior. While Sprigge's philosophy might seem oddly out of place in history, it has enduring value for the manner in which he challenges our common sense views of mind, matter, time and our treatment of non-human animals. On this last point, his ethics is clearly in sync with a progressive movement that aims to reverse the disastrous course that has resulted from viewing the world as mere matter in motion.

This is an edited version of the paper presented to the Philosophical Society's 2009 Conference in honour of the British philosopher, Timothy Sprigge.

Friday 1 May 2009

Searching for Individual Rights (2009)

From The Philosopher, Volume LXXXXVII No.1

What are the Empirical Foundations?

By Byron Hall

In his Second Treatise on Government (1690), John Locke presents the possession of individual rights as an assertion, rather than as an empirical finding. A century later Jeremy Bentham denounced this as a nonsense in his work, Anarchical Fallacies, and natural rights theory was largely out of favour until Robert Nozick partially resurrected it in 1974 with his book, Anarchy, State, and Utopia. And in an essay, 'Toward a Theory of Empirical Natural Rights,' published in 2005 in Social Philosophy and Policy, John Hasnas returns to the question to argue that Lockean-like individual rights evolve prior to the establishment of civil government as the result of empirical problem-solving efforts to avoid hostilities destructive to the individual. In this essay, I aim to take the inquiry into the foundations of individual rights one step further

To do so, I examine individual rights from a different empirical perspective. Insightful problem-solving individuals, when secure in their persons, liberty, and property, sustain the generation of cultural adaptation, central to the survival of the species. On this basis, I conclude that we ought to recognize individual Lockean rights. Together, these two different empirical approaches form a secure foundation for individual rights.
Natural Rights

In imagining humans living in a period before there were governments and man-made laws, John Locke describes how each man is 'governed by the law of nature, which obligates human beings to act for the preservation of mankind: hence, no one may take away, or impair the life, or what tends to the preservation of the life, the liberty, health, limb, or goods of another.' By nature, men are equally free. Thus, the law of nature requires the existence, equal in all men, of natural rights to life, liberty, and property.

Robert Nozick also considers humans living before there are civil governments. Although he does not explicitly identify the rights individuals have in that state, we can assume that the list is very similar to that of Locke. Individuals in this state are governed by the law of nature: 'no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.' However, unlike Locke, Nozick grounds individual rights on the Kantian moral principle that individuals are ends-in-themselves, not mere means.

Empirical Natural Rights

John Hasnas proposes a somewhat different concept of natural rights from that of John Locke. This concept arises naturally before there are civil governments, as a result of problem-solving to avoid destructive hostilities between members of the community. The membership of Locke's community consists of isolated individuals who can either compete or cooperate. By contrast, the membership of Hasnas' community consists of clans or tribes that must also choose to compete or cooperate. Hasnas writes that, 'the inconveniences of the state' before civil government:
... represent problems that human beings must overcome to lead happy and meaningful lives. In the absence of an established civil government to resolve these problems for them, human beings must do so for themselves. They do this not through coordinated collective action, but through a process of trial and error in which the members of the community address these problems in any number of ways, unsuccessful attempts to resolve them are discarded, and successful ones are repeated, copied by others, and eventually become widespread practices. As the members of the community conform their behaviour to these practices, they begin to behave according to rules that specify the extent of their obligations to others, and, by implication, the extent to which they are free to act at their pleasure. Over time ... the members of the community come to regard the ways in which the rules permit them to act at their pleasure as their rights. 
Thus, Hasnas boldly proposes that rights evolve as 'the solutions to social problems -- solutions that have been proven by experience to produce a predominantly peaceful social environment'. 

Hasnas offers four historical cases as empirical evidence to support his position. He discusses how, in fact, people did behave in resolving disputes prior to the establishment of civil government. A remarkable finding from these cases is that, taken together, empirical natural rights correspond closely to Locke's negative rights to life, liberty, and property. The only drawback for natural rights theorists is that, since they arise from the peaceful resolution of real disputes, empirical natural rights are more flexible and more mutable than the rights they usually advance, and they contain practical exceptions.

The Presumption of Human Equality

If we are going to take the position that one has the obligation to respect the lives, liberty, and property of all humans , we are presuming that all humans are equal. Otherwise, we could be arbitrary in the application of our obligation.

Both Locke and Nozick presumed that all humans in the state prior to civil government are equally endowed with natural rights. Hasnas does not address the issue of equality, but following his line of thought, for human communities in the state prior to civil government, the assertion that one clan was superior to the rest would have produced dissention. Problem-solvers would find that giving all clans equal respect would promote peace within the community.

Individual Rights and Human Evolution

Those are the justifications for individual rights presented by Locke, Nozick, and Hasnas, but the main thesis of this essay is that the recognition of individual rights is justified because it benefits the human species.

Adapt or perish! This is the challenge of nature for all species. Over the earth's history, many species have appeared, thrived for a period, but disappeared (leaving no line of descent) when they could not adapt fast enough to changing environmental conditions.

There is much empirical evidence showing that the human species, Homo sapiens, while taking countless millennia to exhibit changed biological traits, has great adaptability because of its capacity for cultural adaptation. (For example, consider the widespread use of the cell phone - a device invented only 30 years ago!) Our species has thrived because of cultural adaptation.

As Jacob Bronowski wrote in The Ascent of Man (1973):
Man is a singular creature. He has a set of gifts which make him unique among the animals: so that, unlike them, he is not a figure in the landscape - he is a shaper of the landscape. Among the multitude of animals which scamper, fly, burrow, and swim around us, man is the only one who is not locked into his environment. His imagination, his reason, his emotional subtlety and toughness, make it possible for him not to accept the environment but to change it. And that series of inventions, by which man from age to age has remade his environment, is a different kind of evolution - not biological, but cultural evolution.
 However, since not all cultural changes help the species to adapt, we need to make an additional distinction between cultural adaptation and cultural evolution.

In his book Sociobiology (1980), Edward O. Wilson also acknowledges cultural evolution, writing:
It is part of the conventional wisdom that virtually all cultural variation is phenotypic rather than genetic in origin. This view has gained support from the ease with which certain aspects of culture can be altered in the space of a single generation, too quickly to be evolutionary in nature. The drastic alteration in Irish society in the first two years of the potato blight (1846-1848) is a case in point. 
Hasnas places the individual as a problem-solver at the centre of his discussion of human community life prior to civil government. Let us examine the empirical characteristic of problem-solving in more detail. Within a wide range, a typical human can solve problems that others assign to him or her. He or she can choose problems to solve from a list given to him or her. He or she can generate a list of problems from which to choose. He or she can generate problems to put on the list. He or she can have access to the problem solutions of others. He or she can use the results of everyone's problem-solving to order his or her life. Taken together, these aspects of problem-solving demonstrate that the typical individual human can be autonomous (self-governing) in all areas of life.

To be a problem-solver, or a potential problem-solver, supposes certain functional, or potentially functional, higher brain activities.
Does the capacity for autonomy disappear if the individual becomes separated from all others? No, it remains in the individual; it is an inherent property.

Is the capacity for autonomy beneficial? Yes, to the individual, his society and his species, as we shall see. The capacity for autonomy has intrinsic value, and its magnitude sets humans apart from the other species.

Man is not born fully autonomous, because many problem-solving techniques must be acquired from his culture through social relationships. For example, it is normal for children to grow up within a family structure in which they learn problem-solving skills such as language, ethics, logic and mathematics, science, use of hand tools and other equipment, tolerance, self-discipline, good health habits, personal responsibility and virtue, friendship, diplomacy and compromise, history, and art. In many parts of the world, children receive formal education outside the home.

Finally, the sense of equality for which I argue includes a wide range of humans. Imagine a circle large enough to contain the names of all human individuals with the capacity for autonomy. Outside this circle fall the names of human individuals who are problem-solvers but whose problem-solving capacity is not sufficient for autonomy. Those whose names fall within the circle (we shall call them 'typical') are 'equal' as candidates for full Lockean rights.

The Individual as the Change Agent for Cultural Adaptation

The question arises, from what sources do the discoveries and inventions that produce cultural adaptation come? The answer I propose is that the change agents are insightful individuals - problem-solvers -- working alone, in small groups, and/or in a line as they pursue their freely-chosen callings. Often, these insights come after a period of investigation and experimentation. For example, we are able to keep food from spoiling rapidly because Carl von Linde invented the refrigerator in 1870. We are able to produce books to pass on information and training because Gutenberg invented the printing press in the 1450s. We are able to use airplanes for transportation because the Wright brothers made the first powered flights in 1903 after developing and testing their airplane. We are able to hold britches (trousers) up and to keep scratches down because Walter Hunt invented the safety pin in 1849.

Problem-solvers require Lockean Rights

The solution of significant problems often requires the development of new knowledge, and that requires liberty for problem-solvers. They need the freedom to learn, the freedom to experiment, and the freedom to publish their findings to others. Good examples of problem-solvers are scientists. As Jacob Bronowski wrote in Science and Human Values (1965):
Science is the creation of concepts and their exploration in the facts. It has no other test of the concept than its empirical truth to fact. Truth is the drive at the centre of science; it must have the habit of truth, not as a dogma, but as a process. If truth is to be found, not given, and if therefore it is to be tested in action, what other conditions grow of themselves from this? 
First, of course, comes independence, in observation and thence in thought. A man must see, do and think things for himself, in the face of those who are sure that they have already been over all that ground. It has been a byproduct of this that men have come to give a value to the new and bold in all their work. Dissent is the native activity of the scientist. Dissent is the mark of freedom. The safeguards which [society] must offer are patent: free inquiry, free thought, free speech, tolerance.
As Arnold Arons and Alfred Bork put it in their book, Science and Ideas( 1964): "the usually unspoken code of science [is that] 'unpalatable truth is preferable to cherished error.'"

Locke realized that the right to liberty cannot be considered separately from the right to property. Men need property to maintain both life and liberty, so they have a right to retain property earned by their labour.

The easiest way of demonstrating the importance of property rights to liberty is to consider the case in which the problem-solvers had no private property rights because the state owned all property. Such problem-solvers would live in state-owned houses, have all their financial accounts in state owned institutions, drive state-owned cars, do research in state-owned laboratories for script redeemable only in state-owned stores, and use only state-owned books and other equipment. Truthful reporting of their research findings is a professional obligation, as well as one of their assigned duties. However, would they be willing to risk the loss of state support and authorization - ruination - to report research findings that contradicted cherished, but erroneous, state positions?

With private property rights, problem-solvers may need to find another employer when faced with a similar dilemma, but would not have to face ruination.

Threats to the Survival of the Species

Our species has survived to the present day, in part, by pure chance. Increasingly there is the awareness that human activities have made continued survival of the species acutely precarious. Weapons of mass destruction could obliterate human life. Global warming is said to bring unpredictable and disastrous consequences. Modern technologies make possible the rapid spread of new diseases. However, in the last century or two, there has been a growing awareness of the inherent value of other species. Various land, habitat and wildlife conservation groups have sprung up all over the world. Industries and governments have begun to take actions to reduce pollution and global warming. It may take decades before reaching a sustainable equilibrium. There is slow progress on the control and reduction of weapons of mass destruction.

The Central Argument: The Species Benefits from Individual Rights

Adapt or perish! That is nature's challenge to all species. Humans are cultural animals, and they can make significant adaptations simply by changing their culture. Over the millennia, cultural adaptation has proved exceeding successful, and I would argue that it also offers the best known opportunity for the human species to survive in the future.

Throughout recorded history, the insights of typical individual problem-solvers acting alone, in small groups, and/or in a line as they pursue their freely-chosen callings, have led to adaptive new patterns of human behaviour. Sometimes, however, insightful individuals have been at risk for persecution and harm to their person and/or property because the adaptive changes they espoused were perceived as threats to the established order. The survival of the human species is under threat from past and present irresponsible human choices. Human insight is needed to meet these threats. Therefore, typical insightful individuals ought to be able to go about their lives freely, with their persons and property protected from harm if the human species is to have its best known opportunity to survive. That is, the Lockean rights of these individuals ought to be respected to respond to the challenge of nature. However, with many variables in play, exactly who may be an insightful individual is unknowable. Hence, for the human species to have its best known opportunity to survive, the Lockean rights of all typical humans ought to be respected.

From the foregoing, we can formulate two statements:
1) To avoid destructive hostilities in communities prior to civil government, the Lockean-like rights of all humans ought to be respected.

2) For the human species to have its best known opportunity to survive, the Lockean rights of all typical humans ought to be respected. 
This of course assumes that the survival of the human species and avoiding destructive hostilities are desirable. Yet I would argue that if one agrees that they are, then one ought also to respect the Lockean rights of all typical humans. This principle requires forbearance on the parts of both private individuals and the state, so it can serve as a fundamental principle for ethics and politics.

Address for correspondence:

Questioning the Problem of Evil (2009)

From The Philosopher, Volume LXXXXVII No.1

Why is it a problem?

By Ben Gibran

What about natural evils? Some regard these as acts of God which ultimately 'work for the good'. Others prefer to draw a yet-to-be-discovered causal link from human wickedness, that disrupted (and continuously disrupts?) a once harmonious relationship between Man and Nature. 

The classic Problem of Evil (henceforth referred to as 'the Problem') is one of the oldest and most persistent puzzles in philosophy. In its various formulations, the Problem posits an apparent contradiction between the existence of evil in the world and the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient and morally perfect Creator (henceforth called 'God'). The conventional proposed solutions to the Problem (such as appeals to free will, limitations on human knowledge, or 'best of all possible worlds' arguments) have been mired in inconclusive debates. This article aims to foreground some of the key assumptions that render the Problem 'problematic'; and signpost a few 'pseudo-problems' along the way.

Some of these pseudo-problems arise from the conflation of several senses of 'evil'. The word 'evil' is used to refer to intentions, actions, practical consequences, acts of nature, pain and suffering. Not all of these 'evils' give rise to the Problem.

Philosophers traditionally divide evils into 'natural evils' (what insurers refer to as 'acts of Nature', such as diseases and earthquakes) and 'moral evils' ('acts of Man', for instance murder or theft). 'Moral evils' may be sub-divided into evil intentions and evil actions. The mere existence of creatures with evil intentions does not result in the Problem. Their evil intentions only give rise to the Problem if successfully acted on, causing evil outcomes (such as actual harm or injustice).

Distinguishing between intentions and outcomes allows for the argument that God redirects our attempts to act on our evil intentions, so that they ultimately 'work for the good' as viewed from a more holistic perspective (perhaps from the future). In such a scenario we would be culpable for our evil intentions; but on the assumption that we have free will, it may be argued that God is not the 'author of [moral] evil'. God brings about good, whether we intend to act badly or not. He does not allow our evil intentions to thwart his perfect plan. This may be called the 'redirection' argument, though it may have other names in the literature. The redirection argument raises a number of thorny questions (not least concerning the nature of free will, the origin of evil, and the role of the former in delimiting God's culpability for the latter), but has at least one advantage over the 'best of all possible worlds' argument (which at its simplest, argues that this is the best of all possible worlds, intentions included).

In allowing for the existence of evil intentions, the redirection argument leaves room for the possibility of sin (defined as rebellion against God, and thereby against our own best interest), which many regard as an undeniable moral reality.

Some may object that the redirection argument does not allow for real sinning, since someone who believes the argument would also believe that he can never really do anything bad (and may therefore 'do evil so good may result'). In response, one may appeal to the moral difference between doing evil in the belief that God will redirect it to the good, and just doing the good (to the best of our knowledge) that God commands. The former appears to be an evil act regardless of its consequences. A child who deliberately breaks his toys in the knowledge that daddy will buy more is still a bad child, even if dad has bottomless pockets. Another objection to the redirection argument is that it fails to address the 'problem of pain'.

Evils may be divided into those that are belief-dependent and those that are not. Pain is a belief-independent evil, because the belief that pain exists is not premised on other contingent beliefs. The experience of pain is sufficient to confirm that pain exists, but the experience of belief-dependent evils such as injustice are mediated through a set of contingent beliefs about the world. According to the redirection argument, from a more holistic perspective we may not see any belief-dependent evils in human history (only evil intentions that were never really fulfilled). However, we would still see pain, because no amount of new information can negate the fact that pain existed.

The standard response to the 'problem of pain' is that once we get the right perspective, we will see the pain as meaningful and therefore no longer as 'suffering' (though we may catch glimpses of 'meaningful pain' in our present experience, for example in a mother's decision to have a 'natural' childbirth, it seems fair to say that no analogy can do justice to the mystery of how the totality of human pain may be rendered 'meaningful'). The sentiment that such a response seems trite or otherwise unsatisfying may be put down to psychological factors (our natural immediate response to grief or pain), rather than philosophical ones.

There are times when we want to say that some event is just absolutely evil, in the sense that it stands for all eternity as a blot on human history. Our sense that grave injustice has been done seems to carry the connotation that real damage has occurred, which cannot be easily undone. Would the redirection argument not change what we mean by 'evil', removing the sense of irreparable harm that underlies the seriousness of evil? We want to say that no amount of punishment for the wrongdoers or compensation for the wronged could nullify real evils. Otherwise, evil would just be a debit on the moral balance sheet, and may be cancelled out with sufficient credit in the form of good works or penance (if we had a surplus of credit, are we free to do evil to balance it out?). On the other hand, how could God allow irremediable evils in the first place?

Proponents of the redirection argument might reply that our intuitions about the irreparability of evil are correct, but they apply to evil intentions rather than their consequences. An evil intention can never be erased from human history, it can never be transformed into a good intention by any amount of ingenuity or power. It is at least arguable that the existence of evil intentions in God's creatures cannot be held against God, if He gave them free will to begin with and redirected their bad intentions into good outcomes.

What about natural evils? Some regard these as acts of God which ultimately 'work for the good'. Others prefer to draw a yet-to-be-discovered causal link from human wickedness, that disrupted (and continuously disrupts?) a once harmonious relationship between Man and Nature. The latter view has the advantage of preserving the moral duty to mitigate natural evils such as disease and famine. If such evils were part of God's perfect plan, we would be hard-pressed to justify the claim that they are indeed 'evils'. But if God redirects evils to the good anyway, why bother to fight evils? In reply, proponents of the redirection argument might appeal to the aforementioned moral difference between doing evil (in this case, by omission) in the belief that God will redirect it to the good, and just doing the good that God commands.

Oddly enough, there is little literature (at least in Western Philosophy) on the possibility that self-delusion plays a part in our perception of the world as a bleak place. Our brains filter all perceptual data through conceptual schemes that are heavily value-laden, skewing our perception of reality to suit arbitrary priorities (in a famous psychology experiment, subjects didn't see a man in a bear suit walking through a basketball game, because they were asked to focus on keeping score. In another experiment, where subjects were shown a picture of a white man holding a knife in front of a black man, many recalled the black man holding the knife).

If. as the evidence suggests, human beings are capable of self-delusion on a massive scale, and as some 'theologicians' propose, the human race is rebelling against God, would our perception of reality not be correspondingly distorted? If we don't want to believe in God, would it not suit us to live in a world that appears to show that He doesn't exist? If the world is full of injustice and suffering, would that not be the perfect excuse for not believing in an omnipotent, omniscient, morally perfect and above all, loving Creator?

One could go a step further (some might say, off the edge!) and ask, is our subjective experience of pain real, in the sense of being caused by external stimuli? In another psychology experiment, subjects who allowed themselves to be hypnotised into believing they were in pain showed the same brain activity as people in real pain. Are we really living in a bad and miserable world, or do we hate God so much that we would rather believe that we live in a bad and miserable world, so we can have the best possible excuse not to believe in Him?

Some may object that we wouldn't be able to delude ourselves into believing we were in pain if we couldn't draw on the real experience of pain (can someone who has never smelled coffee imagine the aroma of coffee?). If hating another human being causes us 'psychic pain', would hatred for God cause a higher order and magnitude of suffering in the haters? If so, could we be drawing on the psychic pain of our hatred for God, and transferring the cause to the external world? In other words, could we be living in Heaven right now, if we didn't prefer to believe we're in Hell? Perhaps C. S. Lewis was understating it when he wrote that the gates of Hell are locked from the inside. If Hell didn't exist, would we have to invent it?

About the author:

Ben Gibran is the editor of 'Ordinary Language Philosophy, an Internet resource on the 'Ordinary Language', 'Linguistic' or 'Oxford' School of philosophy. 

Address for correspondence:

Being Liberal in a Plural World (2009)

From The Philosopher, Volume LXXXXVII No.1

In a Plural World
By Namit Arora

Is 'human rights' a Western idea? Yes and no. Yes because the modern concept of human rights arose in the West during the Enlightenment. No because it is only the latest episode in the long human preoccupation with dignity, justice, compassion, and many localized personal and communitarian rights. But despite the UN General Assembly's adoption and proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, consensus on what rights all humans deserve remains far from settled.

I believe the question that underlies all debate on human rights is really this: What ideas, beliefs, and values--i.e., what common morality, and institutions for safeguarding it--ought to be promoted universally, and the rest left alone to the currents of diversity?

The answer is far from easy and causes much acrimony (recall the 'Asian values' debate), with one side calling human rights a tool of Western hegemony aimed at non-Western societies, only to be accused in return of undermining liberty in the name of culture, order or tradition. Both sides make valid points. So what's a liberal to do? Let's probe a little deeper.

A great many of us today are 'value pluralists.' We believe that humans live by many legitimate ethical values and choices: to join the Resistance or care for a sick mother, to adopt a baby or make one, to support socialism or capitalism. Value pluralism entails that often there are no objective grounds for showing one human value superior to another, i.e., that there can be multiple right answers to a single ethical question. Value pluralism also implies that some values may be incommensurate with others, perhaps even making tragic conflict unavoidable--for instance, pro-life vs. pro-choice values, theocratic vs. secular values, warrior vs. monkish values. Often, conflicts of values are manifest even within a person. Whitman wrote, 'I am large, I contain multitudes.' 
I think it is safe to say that a pluralism of values is an empirical fact and a central aspect of the human condition--there simply are many conceptions of 'the good life' that cannot be objectively ranked. A pluralist considers the values legitimate--though not necessarily equal--when they are recognizably human, including even the values of the Nazis, human-sacrificing Aztecs, and slave owning societies. They are recognizably human because: (a) in other circumstances, and given enough false beliefs, propaganda, or fear, we can imagine ourselves, or our friends, behaving likewise, or (b) though we despise the behaviour, we can relate to the underlying value, say, the value Aztecs placed on regeneration and fertility, albeit via a mistaken institutional custom. On the other hand, pluralism would exclude, say, someone who sees no difference between kicking a chair and killing his mother, because his values are literally incomprehensible.

Contrast value pluralism with 'ethical monism'--the view that every ethical question has one and only one legitimate answer that is part of a single superior moral system (such as utilitarianism, a moral law of God, or an ethics derived from Reason). Note that ethical monism is an extreme state. Many are drawn to it but no one is a pure ethical monist.

The opposite of ethical monism is 'relativism'--the view that legitimate ethical values, especially in different cultural contexts, cannot be judged from an objective and/or universal standpoint--let alone a Western liberal standpoint that privileges individual liberty and human rights. Relativism treats Western liberalism as just one among many local value systems with no universal validity. It argues that others may prefer a different cocktail of values, say, autocratic rule, devotional piety, and traditional clan rights. Who is to say which is better? Note that relativism too is an extreme state. Many are drawn to it but no one is a pure relativist.

The question is, does pluralism imply relativism, and thus (or otherwise) undermine liberalism's universal pretensions? 

Isaiah Berlin (1909-97), a significant exponent of liberal political thought in the 20th century, advanced the ideas of value pluralism and the two concepts of liberty: negative and positive. Though he often claimed that he was not a relativist, he didn't adequately differentiate his pluralism from relativism, except in the most general terms.

Later thinkers have widely accepted his core ideas but have argued over whether or not a commitment to pluralism undermines liberalism, particularly in the debate over universal human rights and 'Asian values.' Among them is John Gray, a British philosopher, who believes that Berlin did not realize the full import of his value pluralism. While it does not imply full-blown cultural relativism, says Gray (though his arguments suggest otherwise), pluralism does undermine liberalism. He regards as monistic the absolute priority and universal relevance liberalism assigns to liberty. The more Western liberals evangelize their conception of liberty and political rights for all humans, the more they veer away from pluralism to monism. Other cultures, he argues, have their own value systems that may not accord a privileged role to liberty.

How does one decide when one is being a pluralist and when a relativist? Berlin perhaps left this intentionally vague, given his well-known aversion to policy specifics and getting his hands dirty in the politics of the hour. The Oxford don instead wrote on this topic only in general, rarefied terms, as in A Letter on Human Nature, written in 1986:
I think that it is true to say that there are certain basic needs, for example--for food, shelter, security, belonging to a group of one's own--which anyone qualifying for the description of human being must be held to possess. These are only the most basic properties; one might be able to add the need for a certain minimum of liberty, for the opportunity to pursue happiness or the realization of one's potentialities for self-expression, for creation (however elementary), for love, for worship (as religious thinkers have maintained), for communication, and for some means of conceiving and describing themselves, perhaps in highly symbolic and mythological forms, their own relationship to the environment--natural and human--in which they live. Unless there is that, communication between human beings, even within a society, let alone understanding of what others have wished to communicate in other ages and cultures, would become impossible. 
In other words, some common humanity is required for humans to at least minimally understand each other, suggesting, in turn, some common values. But if we look at all the human diversity that anthropologists have revealed across time and place, it is less clear how much is truly common, whether innately or through nurture. The devil lies in the details. Reasonable people do not agree on what humans value universally, how much, and in what relative order. And so what policies and rights might be agreeable to all?

Gray, however, tends to accord a special autonomy to regional cultures, holding their boundaries sacrosanct in terms of outsider interference. His is a plea to evaluate cultures from within, on their own terms. It's not clear why this is decidedly better. Perhaps it is an overreaction to the neocon strand of US foreign policy, or his own anti-liberalism, or perhaps a kind of neo-Orientalism. After all, other divisions--of race, class, gender, economics, education, age, religion, and experiences--also mark us. Does a young female peasant in Xinjiang have much less in common with her counterpart in Bengal than with a male business executive in Shanghai? Does a Muslim tailor in Hyderabad have much less in common with his counterpart in Kuala Lumpur than with a Hindu software writer in Chennai?

Even a cursory look reveals that there are many contending forces within every society--struggles and sufferings and countless interplays of power and domination. Privileging a regional culture--as if it were a hermetically sealed entity that outsiders to the region cannot relate to and so shouldn't pronounce on--over other human divisions is an arbitrary choice, with more than a whiff of the ideological. Why stop at regional cultural boundaries, why not go down further to the province, the family, and the individual?

George Crowder, an Australian philosopher, has argued the reverse--that value pluralism not only does not imply cultural relativism (which he claims is Gray's position), but that some of the basic claims of liberalism are logical corollaries of pluralism, and therefore universally valid, beneficial, and worth promoting everywhere. He makes a spirited case that some personal autonomy is required for people to make a rational choice out of the value conflicts that affect them--whether for a village girl in Burma, or a factory worker in Peru. Crowder is not saying that civilizations can, or should, converge; he's suggesting that public policies that see merit in some personal autonomy are objectively and universally better. In his 2003 essay, "Pluralism, Relativism, and Liberalism," in  Isaiah Berlin's  book, Crowder writes:
If pluralism is true, then the best lives, those informed by reasoned choices among the available options, will be characterised by personal autonomy. And if that is true, then pluralism implies a case not only for liberalism but specifically for that kind of liberalism under which the promotion of personal autonomy is a legitimate goal of public policy.
 One might raise two objections here. First, Crowder privileges 'reasoned choices' over other kinds of choices. This seems to me an arbitrary bias. This is not to say that I find it unattractive, only arbitrary and subjective. It is not at all clear why a policy maker who regards himself a value pluralist should privilege reason, when reason is just one of many legitimate values preferred by people. Nor is reason a precondition for pluralism, as many mystical-spiritual worldviews have shown. Without a context, or agreed upon goals for humanity, can a pluralist objectively privilege reason over feeling, instinct, or tradition? Second, Crowder implicitly assumes that personal autonomy will lead to rational choice more often than non-rational choice. That may not be true.

Let me do a quick recap. I began by noting that a pluralism of values is an empirical fact, and then argued that pluralism doesn't justify relativism because humans share a common humanity and many common values. However, it's hard for even most reasonable people to agree on what the common values are, let alone their relative importance, or the motivations that inform a value (such as patriotism). Because pluralism admits universal values, it does not undermine liberalism per se. But if we cannot have consensus on the 'truly universal' values of liberalism, and hence rights--whether on empirical or practical grounds--how, and on what basis, should I as a liberal act in the world?

Three things come to mind:
(1) I would do well to realize that when it comes to values (such as those that inform secularism, social ethics, or human rights), the quest for objectivity is chimerical--I am in the realm of metaphysics and have no recourse to scientific verities. Indeed, even the idea of 'human dignity'--to which we widely subscribe and upon which is built every edifice of human rights--is nothing but a useful fiction.

(2) I should understand that the source of my actions has to be my own liberalism, which includes my own subjective view of our common humanity, the values we share, and the ideas and policies that I think will make the world a better place.

(3) I have to take seriously at least what I hold to be the core values of my liberalism, such as a commitment to try and understand others and to modify my opinions in light of new discoveries.
Indeed, the only path open to me as a pluralist and a liberal is to try to persuade others of my subjective values, and to put my weight behind ideas and policies that appeal to my liberalism. Like everyone else, I come into the world, inherit ideas and traditions, project myself in time, and die. Cultures and traditions are not given but made; social values are contingent and agonistic.

My liberalism may come to see some things as universally true--for instance, that abuse of power and public trust are universally bad, or that the right to free and fair trials tap into a universal value for justice, and so worth supporting in all contexts. Even if I think a value is not universal today--say euthanasia, basic literacy, or tolerance for consensual adult sex before marriage--I may believe that with effort it can become universal, and the world would be better for it. On other issues like school prayer, labour laws, censorship, or social welfare, I may require a lot more local context before taking a stand. Some other values I may be indifferent to but might (or might not) recognize their importance to others. Imperfect, but that's all we have: one language game vs. another, though with real human consequences.

Last but not least, I should try to persuade others without being self-righteous or hypocritical. Nor is pomposity, railing at others, or calling them irrational or stupid the best tactic. Better to seduce via exemplary action. Know thy interlocutor. Successful persuasion may require any combination of ordinary human techniques: pleading, arguing, requesting, reasoning, illustrating, cajoling, praising, challenging, respecting, appeasing, sharing facts, bargaining, dining together, and so on. Alongside, I must remain flexible to revise my belief in my values, given new findings. I must also accept that, at times, open confrontation is unavoidable. That's all there is--my belief in values that I think will lead to a better world, and trying to get others to see it my way on issues I care enough about. 
A sense of humour always helps.

Address for correspondence:

Email Namit Arora at is his personal website centred on India