Thursday, 1 March 2012

Astro-Rambles (2012)

From The Philosopher, Volume 100 No. 1

Centenary Special 1913-2012

and their Starsigns

By Mark Shulgasser and Martin Cohen

Another look at the ancient debate over the scientific credibility of the devilish science...

What we're supposed to think:
'Science has shown us through measurement, observation and experimentation that there are four forces in the Universe: electromagnetism, strong interaction, weak interaction and gravitation. For reasons too detailed to go into in this article, none of them can impact humanity purely from the positions of the stars in the sky or how aligned the planets are.'

- Dr Mark Thompson, astronomer

What we're not to say:

'In the early stages of the human mind, these connecting links between astrology and biology were studies from a very different point of view, but at least they were studied and not left out of sight, as is the common tendency in our own time, under the restricting influence of a nascent and incomplete positivism. Beneath the chimerical belief of the old philosophy in the physiological influence of the stars, there lay a strong, though confused recognition of the truth that the facts of life were in some way dependent on the solar system. Like all primitive inspirations of man's intelligence this feeling needed rectification by positive science but not destruction...'
- Auguste Comte, Cours de Philosophie Positive, Vol. III, 1836

Philosophy has long had a dislike of astrology. It is, after all, irrational. And one of the most surprising, some would say alarming, facts about Ronald Reagan is that, as soon as he became the President of the United States, he appointed a personal astrologer to help him take decisions. But then, for thousands of years, all the Kings and Queens had their personal astrologers to do much the same thing. These were experts that they consulted on important state matters, such as when to invade the neighbouring country, when to harvest the crops - or how best to bring up baby.

Reagan had acquired the habit of consulting an experts in the Occult Arts when he was but a humble actor in California, doubtless the process helped him decide which role in which film he should accept - and we know where that ended: 'Breakfast with Bonzo (1951)'. But once he took high office, the role of astrology became even more in important*.

Reagan consulted his personal astrologer, Joan Quigley, about the personality and inclinations of other world leaders, and used these insights to help him assess the prospects of meetings succeeding. It seems, for example, that the stars looked favourably upon one Mikhail Gorbachev, the then leader of the otherwise Evil Empire, and hence Reagan was encouraged to attempt the rapprochement that in due course led to the end of the Cold War. In fact, the timings of all policy initiatives had to be squared with the movements of the cosmos, and White House staff were instructed to liaise with her in all their plans. She was responsible, in short, for the success of all that Reagan did. And these days, Reagan is counted as a pretty successful President, although that judgement is itself by no means necessarily a very scientific one.

Of course, Ronald Reagan came in for a bit of stick for consulting astrologers. Just as, more generally scientists and attached pundits love nothing better that to mock more humble folk who follow their forecasts in the newspapers and magazines.

Typical of the scientists opposed to astrology is one Mark Thompson, a writer and astronomy presenter for a TV show. Penning a little piece for a newspaper, (Astrology Rubbish? Don't Get Me Started, Daily Mail, Oct 29, 2010) he launches several torpedoes against the astrological dinghy.

First out, that claim that according to astrologers there are 12 signs of the zodiac. Wrong! Boom! There are 13 signs of the zodiac, reports Thompson, adding sardonically, 'Ophiuchus is the 'new' one yet for some curious reason I have never come across an Ophiuchian!' Likewise, until 1781, there were only five planets known to affect us in the minds of astrologers: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Now there are three more! Oh no, two more, since in recent years the astronomers decided they were wrong to have ever counted Pluto as a planet as it is very small and appears to be really just another asteroid.

Even allowing for a moment the traditional twelve signs of the zodiac, there are problems. Mark was born in July which astrologers would say means that when he was born the sun was in Cancer. But they're wrong again. Boom! Originally yes, the sun would have been in Cancer when the star/sun charts were produced about 2000 years ago. But in reality, the wobble of the Earth on its axis - which astronomers call "precession" - has led to them being all out of sync.

'In fact, says Mark cheerily, 'when I was born, way back in July 1973, the Sun was in Gemini. News Flash: you're all reading the wrong star signs! All those astrology columns you've read that seemed spot-on were a fluke. Surprising eh?'

Let's pause Dr Thompson there. Just think, what are the constellations? They are patterns in the starts that we see from Earth. The constellations are in reality made up of stars in very different positions in the universe. Typically, some of the stars are relatively close, and some are a long way away but may be rather larger and brighter. Some of the 'stars' may actually be distant galaxies! And the resemblance of the stars to anything like a lion let alone 'a goat with a fishes tail' is well, nil. So where the planets are in relation to these imaginary, wholly human constructed collections of bright points of light remains and may as well be wholly human constructed. Anyway, it cannot make any difference to the claims of astrology where the 'physical' zodiac is. Because there is no physical sense in which the signs are really there in the skies.

Mark then moves onto more philosophical arguments, saying that if there is some mystical force (other than the fundamental four above) affecting our lives from the planets, then clearly distance is no object for this force as it doesn't matter if a planet or star is near or far. And yet there are 'hundreds of exoplanets orbiting other stars?' And over 200 billion stars in the Milky Way! 'Surely that 'force' would also be affecting us. Thankfully it doesn't, otherwise we would all be running round as complete loonies with all these 'influences' flying at us from all directions.' Boom!

'As you can tell, I'm not fond of astrology', he confides in closing. 'It's all about telling people what they want to hear and we fragile humans' wanting something to believe in.' And that's bad, of course.

What makes astrology bad

Mark is not alone. For many educated people, nothing better illustrates the gullibility and foolishness of the masses, and the need for the lead of a scientific elite than the continued activities of 'unlicensed' specialists in the influence of the stars and planets on human affairs. They don't seem to remember, or want to be told, that for a thousand years, Universities taught astrology as one of the core subjects, and that it was part of a sophisticated system of medical knowledge involving the different parts of the body and different herbs.

Even if that founding figure of sensible science, Isaac Newton, was brought upon a diet of esoteric knowledge, in which astrology ranked as one of the great studies of mankind, even if astronomy profited from the mystical approach of Pythagoras, even if that the best of modern medicine is borrowed from herbalism; and that chemistry is a side-shoot of alchemy. Even if, in short, in Paul Feyerabend's words, everywhere science is enriched and sustained by unscientific methods and unscientific results, today astrology is firmly fallen out of favour with philosophers, let alone scientists. Little remains of the subject other than the superficial popular and psychological forms, yet astrology, like many of the now much derided esoteric studies of the distant past, still has the potential to inform and underpin our understandings of the universe. Because thousands of years of thinking are contained in those ancient astrological myths and legends. Science is just a blip in this long history...

Astrology's origins are lost in antiquity, but it is usually said to have originated in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) before spreading, via Babylon, to the Greeks. The Ancient Greeks learnt avidly of the new studies in science and mathematics, and similarly of the interest in the 'patterns' in the heavens. It was the Greeks who developed the methods of personal horoscopes, a skill then borrowed by the Romans, whose Latin names for the signs have been used ever since.

That said, one rather compelling argument heard against astrology is that some of its practitioners, people who compose astrology columns for daily newspapers or magazines, don't actually 'do it'. Instead of carefully checking the positions of the stars and planets each day, these astrologers simply write stuff off the top of their heads, or ask other people 'in the office' what they would LIKE to be their horoscope for that day, or week.

Such glimpses behind the scenes look pretty damming, upsetting even for those who have up to then found a lot of thought-provoking insight into their most personal secrets in the relevant column. Yet even here, the astrological beast that is slain is nothing more than the 'stalking horse' one of supposed physical cause and effect.

Although occasionally astrologers mutter about possible physical mechanisms for planetary influence, be they changes in the Earth's magnetic fields, or be they still more mystical 'quantum ones', really astrology is not about that. It is about mystical correspondences. It is no less unlikely that someone could randomly generate wise advice for an astrology column than they could do so using those out-of-date zodiacal charts.

Astrology in the Petri dish

Mystical correspondences are difficult to test in laboratories. Yet even if we allow that astrology's workings are too mystical to be examined, far less understood, by scientists, the same cannot be said of the question of whether their predictions are accurate or not. Here, scientists are on their home ground. And indeed there have been many such scientific studies. Throughout the closing decades of the 20th century, researchers tracked more than 2,000 people - selected as they were of them born within minutes of each other. According to astrology, built upon the principle that our human characteristics are moulded by the influence of the sun, moon and planets at the time of our birth, the subjects should have had very similar aptitudes and characters.

The researchers patiently measured no less than 100 different characteristics, including occupation, anxiety levels, marital status, aggressiveness, sociability, IQ levels and ability in art, sports, mathematics and reading, and then looked for any evidence that people born under the same stars shared certain characteristics - as astrology would seem to require, if its forecasts are to make any sense.

Naturally, inevitably even, the scientists failed to find any evidence of similarities between the "time twins". They gleefully reported this in the Journal of Consciousness Studies, which is apparently where such studies belong, adding that: 'The test conditions could hardly have been more conducive to success ... but the results are uniformly negative.'

Summing up the findings, Geoffrey Dean, a scientist, based in Perth, Australia, where the constellations are all different anyway, and a renegade former astrologer himself, said that the results undermined the claims of astrologers, especially as they typically work with birth data far less precise than that used in the study. 'They sometimes argue that times of birth just a minute apart can make all the difference by altering what they call the "house cusps"' he said. 'But in their work, they are happy to take whatever time they can get from a client.'

The president of the Astrological Association of Great Britain, doubtless using his secret powers to see the causes behind events, accused Mr. Dean of seeking to 'discredit astrology'. But he needn't have worried, because anyway, all this is old hat. Astrology first heard and shrugged off that problem centuries, nay thousands of years, ago.

Even the Ancient Greek philosopher Carneades (219-129 BCE), had noted it, adding that if the crucial date for the influence of the stars on humans was the moment of conception, as opposed to birth (which, at least at the time he was writing, is necessarily always at least a few minutes apart) then the irrelevance of astrological influences for twins is even more marked. It was already clear back then that there was no answer to that, but equally, since Carneades was a philosopher who picked holes in everyone's claims to knowledge, and generally insisted that no certainty was possible about anything, in a sense he left astrology humbled but no more unreliable than any other study.

And sure enough, astrology quickly recovered from this blow to its prestige and was sufficiently influential that a few hundred years later, the Church needed to charge its top philosopher, Saint Augustine, with the task of attempting to discredit it. Augustine fell to with customary zeal and thoroughness. But his task was complicated as first he had to square frequent Biblical references to the stars (for example, guiding the wise men, who, more embarrassing still, were in fact astrologers, to Bethlehem) with warnings elsewhere in the Bible that astrologers are evil people who belong in the category of sorcerers and witches.

It was truly a formidable exercise for any philosopher, and his solution was in effect to allow the trappings, but outlaw the substance. God did indeed use the heavens to send messages - but humans could not tell the future 'in general', by looking at the stars. At this point, Saint Augustine gratefully resurrected the twins argument as evidence that the claims of astrologers were false. And not only false. Worse! In trying to read the future, people sinned grievously. It was with this guidance in mind that Dante depicted the poor astrologers burning in the Inferno in a particularly painful way. He has them with their heads twisted viciously round, so that they can only see in the one direction - backwards.

Other Church fathers (Jerome, Eusebius, Chrystostom, Lactantius, and Ambrose) all joined in the Crusade against astrology, and the great Council of Toledo prohibited it for all time. Many other critics, in all ages, followed Augustine's lead. By no means all of these were particularly devout, of course. Actually, astrology is one of the few things that religious folk and irreligious scientists can agree on. As the 'Dark Ages' lightened up a bit, Roger Bacon , Marsilio Ficino, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, William Fulke), John Chamber and Sir Christopher Heydon ) published critiques. By the end of the Renaissance in Europe, there was such a good market for parodies of astrology that even respected writers like Jonathan Swift and Benjamin Franklin had a go!

Of all the Renaissance voices, Pico Della Mirandola is one of the most respected ones. And sure enough, his demolition of astrology rested upon a (re)discovery of the 'twins problem'. Actually, it seems that he had a particular grudge against the science, as he had once been advised helpfully by astrologers that he would die before the 33rd year of his life, due to Mars and the direction of his ascendant. Naturally he was pretty mad about that! And so he discredited their methodology. On the other hand, as some astrologers took unkind pleasure in noting, that unfortunate feature of his horoscope did indeed turn out to be fatal in his 32nd year. That's the story, anyway, and indeed it's a fine story to frighten scientists with, but equally, as has been pointed out, even if the story if true, the prediction is still not really within the proper scope of astrological judgement.

Science and religion combine to combat heresy

Such dire predictions of not only individual misfortune but collective human doom helped Christianity rebadge the ancient stud as a devilish folk art. But as with many other devilish folk arts, even as it condemned the pagan practices, it embraced other traditions of astrology with the other hand. That's why each Christmas the Church celebrates the 'sign' of the star over Bethlehem and has decorated its most important religious sites (in their masonry, stained glass windows and paintings) with numerous astrological symbols and motifs. That's also why, six centuries on, the dates of popes' coronations were determined by the zodiac; aristocratic prelates employed their own personal astrologers; and signs of the zodiac appeared all over church furnishings, tiles, doorways, manuscripts, and baptismal fonts. Such hypocrisy is worthy of science itself!

So there was plenty of scope for a new rediscovery of the 'Twins problem' by science proper, in 1975, this time by a group of '186 leading scientists', including 19 Nobel laureates. These worthies signed a statement called 'Objections to Astrology' which also revealed the problem to a still regrettably unenlightened world.

In a preamble to their critique, the scientists explained their motivations. They had asked themselves why people believed n astrology and concluded that it must be that in uncertain times many long for the comfort of having guidance in making decisions. 'They would like to believe in a destiny predetermined by astral forces beyond their control. However, we must all face the world, and we must realise that our futures lie in ourselves, and not in the stars.'

The 186 were 'especially disturbed by the continued uncritical dissemination of astrological charts, forecasts, and horoscopes by the media and by otherwise reputable newspapers, magazines, and book publishers' saying it could only contribute to the 'growth of irrationalism and obscurantism.'

The statement was organised by three experts in particular: Bart J. Bok, Professor of Astronomy at the University of Arizona; Lawrence E. Jerome, a 'Science Writer' from California and Paul Kurtz‚ Professor of Philosophy at Buffalo, all regular 'skeptics' in the American sense of people who believe uncritically in the march of science and try to make money out of books discrediting all forms of esoteria and alternative medicine.

Lawrence Jerome, for instance, quickly followed up the petition with a 1977 book called Astrology Disproved, which offers as reasons why astrology cannot be true, things like the good scientific fact that: 'Correspondence is not causation: no matter how powerful a coincidence, there is no necessary causation behind it.'

But astrology is divination. Where tea leaves fall in the bottom of a cup does not 'physically' affect my future either. However, it is quite possible that there could be some significant correlations. Possible, but unlikely. One would need a tea-leaf expert to know. Or there's the ancient Chinese art of throwing yarrow sticks and seeing how they fall - the I Ching. There is no possible way, gravitational or otherwise, that certain arrangements of yarrow sticks could influence events on Earth. But the claim is that certain patterns in the sticks reflect certain patterns in the universe. Patterns that ultimately we are part of. But listen to the positivist (everything real can be measured) mindset, plodding relentlessly though its irrelevant critique:
*Astrology is based on your time of birth, but if there is any planetary influence at all, shouldn't it be at your conception?

*There is more gravitational influence on a child at birth from the attending doctor than from all the stars and planets combined.

*Astrology is based on a Ptolemaic, earth-centred, universe and was left high and dry after the Copernican, sun-centred, model was adopted.
Yet in the style, typical of those attempting to nail astrologers, Lawrence Jerome goes on to debunk his own idea of astrology by causation rather than the astrologers' idea of mystical correspondence. 'Astrology is out of sync with the stars', he complains, and the sun passes through those 13, not 12 constellations, on different dates and for different durations that traditional astrology claims.

The odd thing about this 'scientific' debunking is that if , as he and the other signatories all insist, there is no causal relationship between the constellations or the wanderings of the planets 'through them', then there is no significance in the 'actual' position of the stars either. Linking the two is, well. irrational. But then that problem is, as they pointed out, spreading.

Great Philosophers and their Starsigns

So now, on the occasion of the 100th birthday of the Philosophical Society of England, (a Society with a long tradition of thinking 'outside the box ', as it were), let us try a simple astrological experiment of our own and attempt to examine, if not exactly 'scientifically ', then at least without distaste, whether astrology really does tell us something profound about humanity.

Let us take as our starting point and experimental sample the special case of 'great philosophers ', along with the evidence of their published views and writing, and then compare this with conventional astrological wisdom to see if there are any patterns or tendencies that astrologers might have anticipated. This, mark you, is a tough test for the esoteric science, allowing as it does only the use of their crudest tool, the twelve zodiacal sun-signs. But we can afford a little experimental bias towards conventional science.

Aries philosophers . . .
from ego sum to the 'transcendental ego'

And starting our methodical inquiry with the first sign, Aries (March 22 - April 21), we immediately find a strange coincidence. Aries people are supposed to be exceptionally creative and insightful, but also very ambitious. In astrological lore, if each sign has a motto, the motto for Aries is 'I am '. In terms of the body, the sign governs and thus emphasises the head and brain. And Aries, it turns out, is also the birth sign of René Descartes (31 March), the great rationalist and fountainhead of modern philosophy, whose motto is… 'I think, therefore, I am'. Here in his celebrated one line argument is all the egoism you could wish for.

Cogito ergo SUM, ego sum, ego existo

Descartes himself admits that the cogito is not a piece of reasoning. The poet and philosopher Paul Valery calls it 'a fist coming down on a table'. He adds:

[It is] the explosion of an act, a shattering blow . . If the cogito turns up so often in his work, if it is found again and again in the Discourse, the Meditations, the Principles, it is because it is an appeal to his essential egotism. He takes it up as the theme of the lucid Self; it is the clarion call to his pride and the resources of his being. . . . I say that the real method of Descartes ought to be called egotism...

Aries represents the violence of birth, as well as the miracle. The infant 's screams must be accommodated. Descartes' 'I am' immediately confronts the Other and in so doing opens a Pandora's box of dualisms, the discords that will fly about causing harm for centuries: mind/body, subject/object, conscious/unconscious, self/other, certainty/doubt.

In astrological tradition too, Aries is ruled by Mars, the planet or god, and represents irresistible force, birth, emergence, sunrise. Descartes turns up a surprisingly martial swashbuckler in the familiar Frans Hals oil sketch. He carried a silver sword. He disarms a rival lover on the Orleans road. He defeats a band of brigands on a Freisland ferry. He attends battlefields all over Europe. His philosophical dream takes place in a military barracks, while directing munitions and studying ballistics. He has contempt for the past, the intellectual authority of the schools, dead languages, even books.

In the Discourse, Descartes often uses the metaphor of battle writing, for example: 'perhaps we should make the comparison with army chieftains' and that 'For to try to conquer all the difficulties and errors which stand in our way when we try to reach the truth is really to engage in battle; and to reach a false conclusion on an important issue is to lose the battle.'

To become 'masters and possessors of nature' he calls for an organised campaign of science. He calls for an army of paid mercenaries and forecasts the regiments of modern techno-science.

Truly, blood flows around Descartes. For a time, he purposely lives near a slaughterhouse. He defends vivisection in the name of knowledge, cuts out the heart of a living dog, and measures the pulsations along the aorta with his bare hand. 'I have spent much time on dissection during the last eleven years, and I doubt whether there is a doctor who has made more detailed observations than I. ' Blood then is the start of the zodiac, and the start of so-called 'modern ' philosophy.

There is one other canonical philosopher born under Aries: Thomas Hobbes (5 April) whose long life span enclosed Descartes' short one. Does Hobbes introduce the Political Subject as Descartes did the Philosophical Subject? The idea has been entertained. Hobbes, like Descartes, set philosophical debates in geometrical style, 'clear and distinct,' offering his own famously terse battle cries: 'war of each against all', and life, 'nasty, brutish and short'. His convincing justification of 'might makes right' make him politically incendiary.

Think of Hobbes as Descartes' henchman in the battle for reason. Like Descartes, Hume is rumored to be an atheist, even openly accused of causing the Great Fire of London by blasphemous writing. He is dubbed 'the monster of Malmesbury ' and forced into exile.

What astrologers call the natural belligerence of the Aries temperament is today too at the forefront of militant atheism, where reason is antagonist of God. All of the Four Horsemen of the New Atheism, Richard Dawkins (26 March), Daniel Dennett (28 March), Sam Harris (9 April) and the recently laid-to-rest Christopher Hitchens (13 April), vie with each other in abrasiveness.

Dennett, the professional philosopher among them, is famously rebarbative, holds closely to the Cartesian issues of mind and mechanism, pores over Descartes ' original illustrations, evaluates every possible 'meat robot ', mind-in-tank proposal, freely dissecting brains in imaginary thought experiments. Another leading light of philosophy of mind, David Chalmers (20 April) contemplates zombies. 'Automata' and 'artificial life' occur in the very first paragraph of Hobbes' Leviathan. And legend tells of Francine, an automaton constructed by Descartes, in imitation of his deceased daughter, thrown overboard on orders of the Captain.

Two other twentieth century Aries philosophers have also been impressive Cartesians: Edmund Husserl (8 April), who repeats or renews the radical Beginning, and Jacques Lacan (13 April) for whom engagement with the cogito is fundamental. So much for sign number one. Some curious similarities and affinities, undeniably. Next up is Taurus the Bull: polarity negative, element earth, modality fixed.

Taurus philosophers . . . the 'thing-in-itself'

Born under the sign of the Bull, sign associated by astrologers with strength, stubbornness and determination, we find the philosophers David Hume (7 May), Immanuel Kant (22 April), John Stuart Mill (20 May), Karl Marx (5 May), Ludwig Wittgenstein (26 April), and Soren Kierkegaard (5 May). What can they all be said to have in common, other than rare philosophical fame? A certain way of taking up space that might be called Taurean?

Six great philosophers is a big number to be found randomly corralled at random in one of twelve possible pens. Especially considering that out of our benchmark 'Twenty Greats ', drawn from the popular Leiter poll of philosophy, four - Plato, Socrates, Aristotle and Aquinas - are without recorded birth-dates. Thus, six out of sixteen major 'thinkers with birthdates' of western civilisation were born under Taurus, around five times the statistical expectation. Could that be what good social science researchers call 'significant'?

For astrologers, Aries and Taurus together make up the primal pair, the first positive, the second negative. Scrying the source horoscopes of modern philosophy reveals that Descartes' sun was in Aries, his moon in Taurus, while for Kant it is just the reverse, his sun in Taurus and moon in Aries. The correlation of astrological emphasis with historical judgment here seems almost heavy-handed.

If Aries runs with blood and sword; the Taureans, by contrast, are mostly settled and steady. Indeed, Kant's regularity is legendary. Hume was purposive to a fault. As a youth, he committed himself to ten years of disciplined intellectual self-development, which he completed on schedule; likewise later he planned and executed a fifteen-year project, his mountainous History of England, which, as calculated, was an immense publishing success. Always a large man, he grew extremely stout.

The attachment of J. S. Mill to the reassuring authority of his felicific calculus fits too, as does the patient labour of Marx in his famous seat in the British Library, carefully jotting down the thousands of pages of notes that eventually would make up the multiple volumes of Das Kapital - all this is worthy of Taurus.

Hume places an immovable object in the path of Descartes ' irresistible force by setting strong limits to reason. 'The Passions which are and ought to be master of Reason', are products of the depths of unknowable, pre-rational physical nature. Hume has no need to prove either that he exists or that the world is not an illusion. In reply to Descartes' excited horn-blowing, Hume seems bovine, emitting great, placid moo-o-os, Recall this, from the Abstract of the Treatise of Human Nature of 1740:
Des Cartes maintained that thought was the essence of the mind; not this thought or that thought, but thought in general. This seems to be absolutely unintelligible, since everything that exists is particular . . a peach, for instance.

Moo-oo! And then too, a bit later, where he writes:
But our experience in the past can be a proof of nothing for the future, but upon a supposition that there is a resemblance betwixt them. This, therefore, is a point which can admit of no proof at all, and which we take for granted without any proof.
It is not, therefore, reason which is the guide of life, but custom. That alone determines the mind, in all instances, to suppose the future conformable to the past. However easy this step may seem, reason would never, to all eternity, be able to make it.
Where Descartes frets over melting wax; Hume placidly observes 'When the sun shines on the stone, it grows warm'. Moo-oo! Moo-oo!

But what now, about the philosopher who wanted to make reason triumphant, Immanuel Kant? He was 'awakened' by Hume and continued to build with Hume's cement. The 'thing-in-itself,' the laying of Groundwork, the totalizing solidity of his intellectual project, the 'architectonic' plan, the monumental density, all these (for astrologers) bespeak the fixed earth sign. Remarkable too that centuries later, in the Vienna Circle, a bullpen clustered around a stubborn Ludwig Wittgenstein, including Bertrand Russell (18 May), Rudolf Carnap (May 18), Moritz Schlick (14 April), and Wilfred Sellars (May 20). The philosophical centre (a fact acknowledged explicitly by Russell) was the Chief Bull, David Hume.

Yet what shall we make of Kierkegaard? Surely less a bull than a lamb? Can we say that he also sets limits to reason and leave it at that? Wittgenstein and Kierkegaard are the foundation stones of the two dominant modes of twentieth century philosophy, the Anglo-positivists and the Continental negativists. Each of them posits an inexpressibility. The apodictic does not need dialogue. Why can 't it all just stop here, asks the cow in the meadow? Great plus has joined great minus: why go on? Why change? Why the why? 

Kierkegaard, who designated God as 'the Unchanging ', introduces Anxiety to philosophy, as our intrinsic aversion to choice, freedom, dualism. Wittgenstein pursued 'deep disquietudes', the fly in the bottle a tormenting inner gadfly. Kant's fears left him imprisoned in his own routines, while his writing abounded with 'categorical imperatives'. The doubt that Aries briskly sleeps off in a night seems in Taurus to cast a longer shadow.

The philosophers born under the first two signs, doubtless by chance and selectivity, seem to establish a cornerstone. The cusp of Taurus and the next sign, Gemini, offers a surprise: Socrates and Plato are both said to have been born then, a generation apart (Socrates on the 6th and Plato on the 7th of Thargelion, roughly today 's 20-24 May).

Gemini philosophers . . . . from 'metaxy' to 'simulacrum'

For philosophers, the significance of the Plato-Socrates tandem is the argument that consciousness is not merely immediate perception, but lives in language and dialectic. Thus in Gemini - the Twins - originates not only Truth, but also the Lie, both representation and deception, intelligence but also cunning. The Ancient Greek Geminis undercut the certainties of the modern Aries and Taurean philosophers. Hermes/Mercury, tutelary of Gemini, is the god of thieves, having himself stolen the oxen of Apollo at an early age.

Indeed, Plato and Socrates are the Philosophical Guardians at the gate, checking our papers at the border of true and false. Yet, apart from these legendary birthday attributions, philosophy is sparse on the ground under Gemini.

In our source list of 'major ' philosophical birthdays only Jean-Paul Sartre (21 June), Jurgen Habermas (18 June) and Henry Sidgwick (31 May) occur under Gemini; and Sartre is only half a Twin, the sun at his birth being half-way into the next sign, Cancer. But the title Being and Nothingness is baldly dualistic and secures Sartre to Gemini. Ditto, his autobiography: Les mots. (The Words.)

Jurgen Habermas is a communication theorist and inter-subjectivist for whom 'the boundaries of truth are movable.' Henry Sidgwick's presence on this short and distinguished list is a puzzle, but if we wish to wear the scientific hat of objectivity, then that forces us to acknowledge him, a Cambridge utilitarian who died in 1900.

Does it tell us something about Gemini or philosophy that two Gemini thinkers of the highest grade, Blaise Pascal (19 June) and Ralph Waldo Emerson (25 May), fail to make the cut in any of the conventional lists, being considered too unsystematic and peripheral? Of Pascal the world knows well his Thoughts and his Letters (through works like the Pensées, and Lettres écrites à un provincial), his anxious state of in-betweenity, the crucial sibling bond in his life, and his inventions: the mercury barometer, Paris's first postal system, an adding machine. Enough of Pascal. We know he would have written a shorter letter, but he did not have the time.

Emerson too advises us to 'Move fast on thin ice.' For him, 'The universe is only in transit, or, we behold it shooting the gulf from the past to the future' and, he adds: 'I am part of the solar system. Let the brain alone, and it will keep time with that, as the shell with the sea-tide.'

Emerson is an ecstatic binarist, nowhere more so than in the essay, 'Compensation'.

An inevitable dualism bisects nature, so that each thing is a half, and suggests another thing to make it whole; as, spirit, matter; man, woman; odd, even; subjective, objective; in, out; upper, under; motion, rest; yea, nay. . . . All things are double, one against another. Tit for tat . . . the absolute balance of Give and Take.. . Love and you shall be loved. All love is mathematically just, as much as the two sides of an algebraic equation, . .

In a poem he chants, 'Balance-loving Nature / Made all things in pairs . . . '. And he muses:
It is strange how fast Experience and Idea, the wonderful twins, the Castor and Pollux of our firmament, change places; one rises and the other instantaneously sets.
Similarly, another Gemini philosopher to whom the hat must at least be tipped is Jean Baudrillard (20 June), no less a fine-grained dualist than Emerson, writing (unconscious, of course, of the astrological irony) that:

Everything which offends against duality, which is the fundamental rule, everything which aims to be integral, leads to disintegration through the violent resurgence of duality - . . . . No one seems to have understood that Good and Evil advance together, as part of the same movement. The triumph of one does not eclipse the other—far from it. . . Good does not conquer evil, nor indeed does the reverse happen, they are at once both irreducible to each other and inextricably interrelated.

What though shall we make of Henry Sidgwick, who makes it into the Leiter Top 40 of Great Philosophers - ahead of Whitehead, Ryle, Merleau-Ponty, Arendt, Habermas and Foucault? An early English admirer of Walt Whitman, Sidgwick 's utilitarian legitimations of concealment and asceticism seems to argue for a different kind of Gemini philosopher. But indeed, Sidgwick was also the founding president of the Society for Psychical Research, and 'spent more hours in search of ghosts, communications from the dead, and other paranormal phenomena' than on those Taurean efforts at ordering reality. Happy then that flexibility, balance and adaptability are said to be the hallmarks of his sign.

With the introduction of Gemini thinkers, the philosophical realm seems to broaden into considerations of social relations, language, communication, borders, margins and edges. There is less dogmatism, there is more examination, questions are raised more frequenty than answered.

Crabby philosophers . . . . on to the counter-enlightenment?

And finally, a look at Cancer, the Crab, the fourth sign, and one without on the face of it any grand aims in life. In astrological lore, Cancerians instead love home-life, the family and domestic settings. They are said to be traditionalist and to like operating on 'a fundamental level'. Astrologers talk about those born under this sign as being fascinated with the beginnings of things - suggesting that everyday Cancerians will be interested in heraldry, ancestry and so on.

So how do our two stand-out philosophers here, namely: Gottfried Leibniz (July1) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (28 June) fit with this astrological antecedent? An inveterate tinkerer, Leibniz represents well Cancer 's practical side. And Leibniz's grand (Pythagorean) philosophical project was to make the world rational by reducing it to numbers and forcing it to obey the laws of mathematics. Yet, like Pythagoras, his fundamental building blocks for the project seem anything but rational - indeed Leibniz's monads are among the most mysterious objects in the universe. The 'Universal Computer' goes from one Cancer to another, if it travels the road from Leibniz to Turing (23 June).

As for Rousseau, he aptly illustrates not only Cancer's practical side in his love of grand houses and homes, but also (in his philosophical appeal to 'life before property' and quintessentially romantic view of human nature) the Crab's 'moon' spirit. Quite simply, Rousseau speaks up for the claims of feeling.

Once again admitting the small-fry into the tabulation we find among the earlier philosophers Gianbattista Vico (23 June), who insisted that Descartes had no right to privilege the 'clear and distinct idea' beyond mathematics and physics. Then a cluster of continentals: Gaston Bachelard (27 June), who thought he could see in science the poetry and elemental psychology of Fire, Earth, Air and Water; Walter Benjamin (15 July), who looked for mysticism in historical materialism; and Jacques Derrida (15 July), eraser of the margins of the rational.

On opposite sides of the contemporary philosophic divide, two Crabby 'social constructivists', Thomas Kuhn (18 July) and the less well known Bruno Latour (22 June) both tried to undermine scientific certainty. Also on the analytic side of the fence is Willard Quine (25 June) whose strong objection to Derrida now resembles discomfort at sharing a zodiacal trait. If 'to quine is to repudiate a clear distinction' then Derrida is a champion quiner. Likewise Michael Dummett (27 June) both read tarot cards and joined the Catholic Church.

Indeed, it is easy and fun to scan the lives and works of our Cancerian philosophers for references to the traditional concerns of that sign: the element water, the Moon, seashells and enclosures, the womb, organicity, the erosion of the linear by the 'morphological'. And so it seems that once again, the astrologers perspective can yield a host of intriguing and subtle insights.

Quod erat demonstrandum.

About the authors: Mark Shulgasser, is writing near New York , U.S.A. - Email:

Martin Cohen, is writing in Aquitaine, France - Email:

This article was updated on June 6 2013 to reflect the fact that all of the Four Horsemen of the New Atheism movement are Aries, and not three as originally stated.

Chimpanzee Paintings and the Concept of Art (2012)

From The Philosopher, Volume 100 No. 1
Centenary Special 1913-2012

and the Concept of Art

By John Valentine

Can animals not only paint - but produce works of 'art'?

In recent years, a proliferation of Internet sites dealing with animal art has suddenly appeared. Along with them, many claims have been made about the ability to create art for an incredible variety of non-human animals, ranging not only from the higher primates but on to elephants and dolphins too. The Belgian philosopher, Thierry Lenain, however has drawn a line in the sand arguing, (with regard to chimpanzees in particular) that the paintings are nothing more than examples of 'paint play' whose sole purpose is the disruption of a pictorial field. They are not art, in other words (he says), in any significant sense of the word.

To understand why he this might be, we need to explore the concept of aesthetic properties from a more fundamental perspective than Lenain allows. In doing so, I believe it can be shown that chimpanzees are, in fact, capable of making art in a prototypical way. Whether this conclusion could be extended to other primates or non-primates I leave as an open question. We shall consider only the intriguing case of chimpanzee paintings.

A quick look back at the biologist, Desmond Morris, can help us begin to formulate an approach to these intriguing examples of 'animal artists'. In his book, The Biology of Art, Morris explains that Congo - the most prolific chimpanzee painter at the London Zoo - consistently demonstrated the following behaviours during various drawing and painting experiments.
A. A noticeable degree of intense focus on the blank sheets of paper presented to him and especially the markings per se he produced.

B. An aversion to being interrupted while drawing or painting.

C. Restricting his mark-making to the blank paper itself.

D. Periodically marking blank paper with a fan pattern that underwent numerous repetitions over time.

E. Balancing offset figures on the papers handed to him. For example, a square figure presented to him just to the right of center on the paper was balanced by mark-making an equal distance to the left of center.

F. A quantifiable progression in the styles of his compositional and calligraphic skills. (Although Congo never reached the representational stage, he went through numerous scribbling and diagrammatic stages that seem to be precursors to representational drawing, and that are found in human children.)

G. Finding his drawing or painting to be a rewarding activity in itself without any connection to outside positive reinforcement.

H. Exhibiting behavior seemingly intended to show when Congo was finished with a given painting and either ready for another blank sheet or ready to re-perceive the next situation as a different sort of play time or 'time to do something else.' (Often he was observed to play on the high chair and tray that was used to seat him when he was painting. In this way, Congo seemed to treat painting as a special kind of activity that held a different value for him than regular play or roughhousing.)
And finally, Congo reliably demonstrated a resistance to any direct positive reinforcement that was used to make him paint. In this last sense, Congo was similar to another chimpanzee who was once subjected to bribery with a food reward to encourage him to draw more intensely. He quickly learned to associate drawing with getting the reward but as soon as this condition had been established he took less and less interest in the lines he was drawing. As Morris notes: 'Any old scribble would do and then he would immediately hold out his hand for the reward. The careful attention he had paid previously to design, rhythm, balance, and composition was gone and the worst kind of commercial art was born!'

Which brings us firmly back to the need for a definition of art. Thierry Lenain offers that a work of art 'is a thing created by a process whose aim is to confer on it a special aesthetic presence.' In the case of paintings, what he means by this [statement] is explained indirectly by everything he believes chimpanzees do not do. That is:
* Chimpanzees do not create painting equipment and the pictorial field on their own (these are obviously presented to them by humans);

* Chimpanzees rarely, if ever, return to a painting once it is finished; they do not have a developed sense of aesthetic forms as such or the cultural/symbolic implications of such forms;

* Chimpanzee paint-making behavior is solely connected with play and the making of marks just as marks; and their aim in paint play is not to confer on a surface any special aesthetic presence or sense of order, but rather to disrupt the surface by any and all means available.
In more positive terms, true art- at least for Lenain, looking at, in this case, true painting -
Involves a deliberate process of choosing or creating appropriate painting equipment, creating and transforming the pictorial field into a symbolic or imaginary space for the development of forms that have a specific idea, and creating balance, rhythm, composition, and harmony (et cetera) by means of a purposeful sense of order. Lenain thinks that chimpanzee paintings can be deceptive in the sense that they often look like examples of human gestural painting, but on closer analysis, he says, they lack the precise conceptual characteristics of the latter.

Let's pause though to examine for a moment Lenain's understanding of the concept of aesthetic properties. As we've seen he cites values such as balance, composition, and harmony as paradigms of aesthetic form. He implies that these values are, if you will, second order or higher-end values that are superimposed upon first order sensory phenomena such as line, color, shape, and form. It is precisely such a superimposition, he says, of which chimpanzees are incapable. This sort of distinction between first order phenomena, which are presumably themselves non-aesthetic, and second order aesthetic values or interpretations is common enough in the field of aesthetics. Consider the following short list.

The American philosopher, Kendall Walton, argues that high-end properties of this sort are emergent attributes of artworks that are based on non-aesthetic attributes such as colours and shapes, modulation of notes, and pitches and rhythms. In order to correctly perceive such high-end properties, he says the viewer must have a prior knowledge of and training in a variety of artistic categories. Yet perhaps what is missing, however, in this account is an attempt to describe what it means to experience lines, shapes, colours, tones, and forms - or the holistic groupings of these properties - as themselves intrinsically aesthetic.

Recall here that the Greek root-words for the term aesthetics are aisthenasthai (to perceive), aisth-ta (perceptible things), and aisth-tikos (pertaining to sense perception). When one is drawn to the gestalt of line, shape, colour, et cetera, as such, one is perceiving aesthetically. The nature of the 'drawnness' is often non-reflective and immediate.

Of course, the sort of experience I have in mind here is frequently presupposed for us in the art world in terms of an art-object's having already been contextualised: we see it in an art museum, hear it at a concert hall, and so on. But there are unusual cases where the art world may be at a loss in regard to certain objects. Interestingly, Walton himself gives an example of this latter type:
If we are confronted by a work about whose origins we know absolutely nothing (for example, one lifted from the dust at an as yet unexcavated archeological site on Mars), we would simply not be in a position to judge it aesthetically. We could not possibly tell by staring at it, no matter how intently or intelligently, whether it is coherent, or serene, or dynamic, for by staring we cannot tell whether it is to be seen as sculpture…or some other exotic or mundane kind of work of art.
It is no doubt true that we would be at a loss as to how to apply sophisticated, high-end aesthetic terms to such an object. However, surely we could still be drawn to the gestalt of its colours, shapes, forms, and lines as such. In that case, we would be relating to the object as generically aesthetic in a low-end or first order sense. It seems likely that we could do this notwithstanding our lack of specific art categories, as Walton suggests this when he acknowledges that we could attribute aesthetic properties to this strange object the way we do to natural objects, 'which of course does not involve consideration of historical facts about artists or their societies.' But this would mean that, if we could be intrinsically drawn to the gestaltic lines and colors of a sunset, for example, we could be equally drawn to the purely formal properties of a deliberately made object. Tones, shapes, lines, colours, forms, et cetera, can have their hold on us even if we have no further idea as to how to classify them.

A similar issue occurs in Frank Sibley's discussion of the connection between non-aesthetic properties and aesthetic concepts. Sibley claims that certain kinds of factual statements about physical objects reveal to us their non-aesthetic properties, such as type of line or shape, saturation of colour, aspects of tones, and so on. These properties provide a foundation for aesthetic concepts, which he believes to be emergent from non-aesthetic properties, although it is impossible, he says, that any collection of such properties would ever be logically sufficient to justify the application of the appropriate aesthetic terms. But again, what Sibley seems to miss is that we can focus on lines, shapes, colours, tones, et cetera. –or the gestalts comprising them - for their own sake. Such a focus would be 'aesthetically primitive' and would be distinguishable from the high-end aesthetic concepts (such as delicacy, gracefulness, vibrancy, garishness, and so on) that he cites.

Sibley is surely correct in arguing that these latter concepts are complicated matters of taste, but it seems that there is space left for some kind of primary sensory experience of the gestalt of formal elements in terms of the original Greek idea of aisth-tikos.

Now, if it is plausible to argue that line, shape, colour, and form as such can be perceived aesthetically (i.e., for their own sake), it seems equally plausible to argue that chimpanzees are also capable of such perception. In places, Lenain himself admits as much: 'Monkey painting undoubtedly shows characteristic signs of an elementary level of aesthetic sensibility.' Of course, Lenain immediately distinguishes between this elementary level and the higher cultural/symbolic level of aesthetic sensibility he finds solely in the human species. But the important question is whether what's there in monkey paintings and paint play is enough to constitute it as 'art'.

Lenain does not dispute Morris' points A through C, except to note that chimpanzees are not known to create painting equipment and pictorial spaces in the wild, and in captivity they create paintings if and only if humans make such equipment and spaces available to them. (Additionally, Morris had to show Congo how to hold the painting equipment at first and how to move his brush across the pictorial field).

Lenain does, however, dispute points D and E respectively concerning deliberate repetition and balance. He notes other studies of chimpanzee paintings where the fan pattern, noted by Morris, did not appear. He also argues that the fan pattern is not a function of a 'sense of order' (as the term is used by the art theorist E.H. Gombrich), but rather is basically a playful disruption of already existing lines. In the same way, he argues that balancing offset figures is another variant of disruption, resulting from a chimpanzee's sense of creating disorder.

Finally, with regard to Morris' remaining points, Lenain states that Congo was able to go through somewhat more sophisticated stages of mark-making because Morris worked with him for over two years and had a special relationship with him, one that is rare and difficult to reproduce experimentally, and that Congo had no real concept of what he was doing in his paint play, had no ideational aim, and almost never returned to a finished painting (unlike human artists). And so Lenain disputes Morris' suggestion that Congo was making art in any important sense.

Many of these critical points against Morris (and other biologists of art) are nuanced and well-taken; however, the basic fact remains that Congo was intensely interested in his paint-markings as such, notwithstanding doubts as to why (perhaps as to whether a sense of order or some kind of disruption of a pictorial field was the operative causal principle of his behavior). Congo intentionally created a series of lines, shapes, and colours that absorbed his attention, satisfying all the requirements of a first order or low-end aesthetic phenomenon.

Additionally, Lenain recognises some kind of 'dawning awareness' in the work of the chimpanzees. This 'dawning' was evidenced early in Morris' work with Congo when the animal seemed to suddenly grasp that 'this is what can be done with paintbrush, paint, and blank paper.' Instead of the usual sorts of roughhousing and aggressive play, Congo settled quickly into an intense and usually rather quiet absorption with paint play. Indeed, chimpanzees do exhibit such absorptions with other sorts of endeavors, but the duration and depth of focus of Congo's painting phase was impressive.

Let's return now to Lenain's original definition of art: a work of art 'is a thing created by a process whose aim is to confer on it a special aesthetic presence.' If 'special aesthetic presence' is taken only to mean the result of a cognitive and self-aware production of a cultural/symbolic series of meaningful forms in a pictorial field where the field assumes the status of an imaginary space, then chimpanzees are apparently incapable of such a production.

On the other hand, if 'special aesthetic presence' can mean the production of lines, shapes, colours, and forms that can be noticed and enjoyed as first order sensory phenomena, then chimpanzees are clearly capable of this different sort of production. Lenain would regard this latter type of production as pseudo-art. So would various art world theorists, such as George Dickie and Arthur Danto, since Congo himself was incapable of being a self-aware member of the art world, or, of course, of having any inkling of the atmosphere of interrelated theories and ideas that constitute an art world as such. Certainly, Congo's paintings would fail to satisfy most, if not all, of Denis Dutton's cluster criteria for defining art as outlined in his fascinating book The Art Instinct.

The problem here is that if many contemporary philosophers claim that art must be an artifact (that is, by definition an object created by humans); that it must have a conceptual or symbolic subject of some kind; that it must be the product of a self-aware, intentional aim whose goal is to actualise said subject; that it must be an object that the artist wants to and in fact does return to after completion (for purposes, say, of criticism or contemplation); and that it must be an object that is not merely the result of instinctual exploratory play, but rather is part of an artistic culture, to be preserved, discussed, and appreciated outside any simple pattern of such exploratory play….then it is unclear that art as such must have all these conditions.

To build the notion of artifactuality into the very definition of art (as Dickie and Danto and others do) is immediately and arbitrarily to rule out non-human cases. To say that all art must have a subject is problematical as well, as might be seen in the simple case of a still life. Does a trompe l'oeil painting of a bowl of fruit have a subject? One might say that the painting refers to the fruit or in some sense concerns the fruit (or that the fruit is the subject or 'sitter' of the painting), but there need not be any conceptual statement about the fruit that the artist is making; he or she is merely applying various techniques to the precise representation of the fruit.

To say also that artists invariably want to and in fact do return to their finished works is unconvincing, since, although perhaps unusual, there are cases where human artists do not do this. Lenain could argue that in these cases humans are capable of returning to their works but choose not to do so, whereas chimpanzees are not capable of returning to their works. But returning or not returning to a finished work hardly seems a necessary condition for defining art as such.

And lastly, although it seems true that chimpanzees lack an artistic culture or art world of their own, the fact that they produce paintings as a function of exploratory play need not exclude their creations as a basic form of art. Young children also produce drawings and paintings out of a sense of play, and the fact that chimpanzee paintings result from a sort of ecstatic and concrete absorption with disrupting a pictorial field need not exclude them from the domain of art, especially given that the chimpanzee artist's aim in such cases seems to be the intentional creation of a series of lines, shapes, forms, and colors whose purpose is to be noticed and enjoyed in terms of the direct sensory appreciation of first order or low-end aesthetic properties.

Grant for the moment that I am correct in classifying chimpanzee paintings as art of a basic form, what then follows from such a classification? What sort of difference does it or should it make in the way we approach and appreciate chimpanzee paintings? If they are art, what sort of critical or interpretive discourse about them should we engage in? Do we simply appreciate the lines, colours, and forms of Congo's paintings and stop at that? Does it make any difference that the paintings were done by a member of a different species? Should species differences make any difference in artistic value?

One could answer that at the level of simple formalism species differences might not matter, and that an appropriate critical response to chimpanzee paintings need not involve anything more than noticing and enjoying (or not enjoying) the mark making for its own sake.

Both Morris and Lenain recognize that individual chimpanzee painters have their own simple styles, and that someone who is familiar with a given animal's general style can usually identify new paintings as having been done by that particular animal. Of course, this is a great distance from the critical discourse we typically find in regard to, say, Jackson Pollock's work. But it may be enough to allow chimpanzee paintings as intentional creations that 'confer a special aesthetic presence on a pictorial field.' If so, it seems likely that chimpanzee paintings are not merely examples of disruptive mark making. They too can be experienced, enjoyed and appreciated as art.

About the author:  John Valentine, is writing in Savannah, Georgia, USA.

Address for correspondence:

The Fifth Fundamental Force (2012)

From The Philosopher, Volume 100 No. 1
Centenary Special 1913-2012

By James McBride

The God that Whispers
The God that Shouts

'But in his [primitive man's] conception of nature and life all these differences are obliterated by a stronger feeling: the deep conviction of a fundamental and indelible solidarity of life that bridges over the multiplicity and variety of its single forms.'

An Essay on Man, Ernst Cassirer (1944)

Is this a philosophical paper? Certainly. I wondered how to write it. I'm a lawyer used to writing with authority. But I have no authority for what follows. There will be no footnotes. I am a novice writing about subjects experts study for a lifetime: science, theology, and philosophy. I have no comparable credentials. Many may dismiss me as presumptuous, and not even bother to read further. Notwithstanding, I cannot get the subject off my mind. I want to summarise my reflections in ordinary, unprofessional language. That mode of expression best suits my incertitude. Am I on the right track? What do you think?

For me, it started about 30 years ago. I enrolled in a correspondence course on physiology. I wanted to learn about the body to better represent clients with injuries, medical issues. I wanted to learn the vocabulary of patient charts. Reading the textbook, I came to a sentence that stopped me 'dead in my tracks.' Like a star sparkling in the dry scientific discussion of cells there was a sentence mentioning that DNA is found in all forms of life. I re-read that sentence several times and considered the implications. Of course DNA is the well-known mainspring of cell life. But the significance for me came in the realisation that humans don't have an exclusive monopoly on DNA nor are physiologically exceptional. Recognition of that incontrovertible fact changed my world view.

I have a scholarly interest in religion. I read the Bible and books on comparative religion. My interest is not faith-oriented. I don't attend church. I never took seriously the idea of a personal god in heaven, nor the efficacy of prayer. But I nonetheless find religion most interesting. I feel there is a spiritual side to life which is apt to attach to just about anything, even to a secular political system, such as, for example, Marxism. The religious leader Meher Baba radiated spirituality, but did not speak. Without words, he wandered to and fro as a 'god intoxicated' figure. I never took him seriously, but I wanted to know about him.

The problem with religion, many say, is that it is out-of-step with modern science. I cannot hold it against people like Jesus, Moses, Paul or Buddha. They knew nothing of physiology, much less DNA. The general public is light years ahead of those venerable prophets in understanding life processes. I look forward to a religion based on current science, but scientists are reluctant to cross the bridge from science to god. They would be ostracised, lose grant money, be deemed cranks. On the other hand, I don't have such constraints. Philosophers are historically a profession not afraid to be called cranks. I borrow a leaf from their book.

To reflect about god a logical place to begin would be the study of other life forms. All have in common the basic imperatives of birth; survival by eating, fighting, self-protection; reproduction; and death. Those four characteristics of life comprise a destiny programmed in the DNA molecule, along with a mass of collateral instructions to guide everyday behaviour in the direction of the major imperatives of life. While there is infinite variation in the outward appearance of life forms, for all of them it is DNA that governs their destiny.

Fifth Fundamental Force in Nature

I cannot believe the imperatives are unplanned, random, fortuitous. Circumstantial evidence can be 'compelling,' as attorneys sometimes say to prove a point. I think something I'll call the 5th Fundamental Force of Nature is behind cellular life and DNA variation. Individuals are of no consequence. The evanescent quality of life is what's important. It's a current that flows everywhere.

There are four other Fundamental Forces in nature: gravity, electromagnetic, the strong and weak forces. Frankly, I don't know much of anything about those Forces, except that gravity attracts everything from a feather to celestial bodies and scattered matter across the universe. That's all I know. Scientists don't think the 4-Force list is complete. They anticipate the inevitable discovery of other Fundamental Forces. Fundamental Forces operate everywhere simultaneously, even outside earth. The life force is likely to extend throughout the entire universe, which means that life will be found anywhere conditions are suitable.

Something makes cells live. Correct me if I am wrong, but I don't think science has identified what it is that animates cells. Now and then there is a report of a scientist who claims to have created life. I don't believe it. Science can manipulate DNA, but that is not the same as making cells live. Life is an intangible quality, perhaps not even measurable. It is everywhere at the same time, considering the huge number of living species, animals, plants, insects, etc., every individual laden with billions of cells radiant with life. A quality that makes the entire organic world live can be nothing other than a Fundamental Forces of Nature.

But the 5th Force does more than animate cells, I believe. It modifies the structure of DNA. The moment of adjustment probably falls precisely when an organism reproduces. At that point, the organism is a single cell called a zygote. Soon it will burgeon into billions of differentiated cells as the organism develops, but at the beginning it is a single cell. That is the optimum time to adjust DNA, either to modify the characteristics of an organism or to create a new species.

Some commentators contend the rationality of life forms is the result of 'intelligent design.' 'Intelligent' is an unfortunate adjective not least as it implies that humans can understand the process, because humans are intelligent. The life force is not human, however. It is not even close to being human. It is unspeakably immense in its scope yet tiny in size, without dimensions, inexplicable, eternal, presiding simultaneously over billions of life forms within a coherent matrix of relationships. The process is so far past human understanding that another word instead of 'intelligent' is needed. Naturally, I cannot find a word in the dictionary that would fit it.

Eternal Life Force

Or we might approach the question starting from the other end. Why is death an imperative? It is a nonissue in the overall scheme of the life force. The flow of life is an aggregate phenomenon, not an individual thing. Individuals are the mere indicia of the underlying omnipresent life force. The unlimited supply of individuals turns over perpetually. For there to be an ongoing process of DNA modification, new life forms replace the old. What is more, virtually every living thing survives by feeding on something else that perishes. Even vegetarian species live by the death of living plants. The beauty and splendour of the McKinley or Yellowstone National Parks are also good places to behold the 24 hour reality of predation. Individuals are expendable; that could not be more evident.

Here is a likely reason there is a great diversity of life forms. The life force anticipates the threat of mass extinction. There have been several extinction events in the history of earth, e.g. asteroid collisions, ice ages, volcanic eruptions. Biologists say we are in the middle of the 'sixth mass extinction'. This one, alas, caused by us. At least in the past, after the extinctions, a remnant of life survived in safe niches. After conditions of extinction dissipate, the life force rebuilds the inventory by modification of the remnant DNA.

A whole new spectrum of life forms covers the earth, in readiness for the next cataclysmic extinction event. How does the life force know about extinction threats? I have no idea, but it is obvious the life force prepares by means of a diversity strategy, like a diversified investor who acquires stock in many companies. Some companies prosper, others don't, while the portfolio survives.

The God that Whispers vs. the God that Shouts

There is more than one god, as I see it. The god of the life force is the god that whispers. It is a god that operates at the molecular level, that's why I say it 'whispers.' Another god is behind the inorganic world. I call that force the god that shouts because its actions are accompanied by bold actions, such as volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, hurricanes. The two don't collaborate. Indeed, the god that shouts willy nilly annihilates life forms. It is probably oblivious to the presence of fragile life forms clinging to the inorganic landscape. The god that whispers occupies a subordinate role. If both forces were under a single management we would see some marks of a cooperative joint venture. It may look like a partnership between the two gods, but it's not.

Religion presents god as a personal saviour. But the life force god that whispers is nobody's friend. Consider that the life force is also behind germs – DNA driven micro-organisms that may prove lethal. Why would a god that whispers kill us with germs? With small pox, plague, or malaria…

Perhaps it is because the life force does not have a myopic view of the world. Perhaps it is because it has a wide perspective that takes into account all forms of life at the same time. This comprehensive perspective ultimately requires a balance among all interdependent life forms. Unfortunately, when any species - such as home sapiens - distorts the balance, it becomes necessary to restore equilibrium. Plagues might be one means of reducing population. That's how a power that's wielded only at the molecular level can influence history. If germs don't work, what will come next?

Medicine sometimes works at cross-purposes with the god that whispers. In a small way doctors re-write the script of life when they stand up to death on behalf of their patients. We count on doctors to prolong life and even sue them for neglect of professional duty. While it may be their sworn duty to postpone inevitable death of the aged, it could be said that, in doing so, they work against nature's program based on the expendability of individuals. Could it be that sometimes esteemed doctors thwart god!

In fact, Christian ideals don't align with nature's rough and tumble paradigm. For example, the dignity of the individual. That's fine for a legal system, but it's definitely counter to the whispering god's view that individuals don't count. Christianity exhorts people to be compassionate and live by the 'Golden Rule.' While DNA may be coded for mothers (especially) to love their children, much of the rest of animal behaviour seems to be a story of single-minded self interest. Pursuit of advantage is the ruthlessly frank theme of life. The god that whispers gives its creatures everyday power struggles by 'tooth and claw.' I cherish civilisation and do not want to defenestrate Christianity and morals, but let's not kid ourselves. Religion is a manmade construct that (at best) softens human relations, but does not explain the ultimate mysteries.

When atheists deny god and stand by their independence, I believe it is mainly organised religion they cannot swallow. For that matter, neither can I. But we should keep an open mind about the mystery of life. There is 'something because of which there is not nothing.' I offer Atheists a god they won't deny, a god that whispers, even if it's not a god one would be inclined to embrace. What is more, the god that whispers gives us many happy moments - the humble joys not to be disdained. Our glass is half full and that's better than empty. Too bad we cannot quite see the purpose of life, or the meaning of the universe. Is there an answer somewhere? Yes. Could we understand it? Probably not.

Modern Man: If you are inquisitive like I am, you probably want to know more about the mysterious governing force that whispers.

Primitive Man: Certainly I do. Frankly, I am surprised you can't give me anything more than a few inferences after all these years.

Modern Man: Well, believers hold fast to the notion there is no more than one governing force. They mistakenly put a benign face on it. Others say the governing force cannot be 'intelligent.' It's not easy for people to reconsider.

Primitive Man: I see the modern world has finally gotten around to verifying my primitive view of the solidarity of life. What's next?

Modern Man: I don't know. Can the scientists answer for us?

Address for correspondence: James P. McBride, writing in Hayward, California, U.S.A.


Belief in God (2012)

From The Philosopher, Volume 100 No. 2
Centenary Special 1913-2012

The depiction above of the Islamic philosopher is a detail from the Triumph of St. Thomas Aquinas in Santa Maria Novella, Florence. Although Thomas Aquinas and later philosophers owed Averroes a major intellectual debt, they also fiercely criticised his writings. In this fourteenth-century fresco, Andrea di Bonaiuto placed Averroes with the heretics Sabellius and Arius in the space beneath the saint's throne

And Belief in the Existence of God
By Yahya Haidar

Distinctions are a thing of subtlety. And it would be safe to assume that to distinguish, or to be able to tell the ways in which one thing differs from another, is both the beginning and end of philosophy. Aristotelian Categories could hardly exist without them, while Muslim philosophy defines knowledge (gnosis) as simply the 'aptitude to find distinctions' and, of course, analytic philosophers live for nothing else. Yet as philosophy takes on the task of understanding the finer distinctions in the world of meaning, it has often found itself in bitter dispute with theology.

At one level, there is no clear necessity for this: philosophy is by definition concerned with wisdom, sophia, or 'being understood as being', while Theology invariably revolves around the precepts of God and sanctity. And the subjects have a common claim to one unique truth, be it in the form of metaphysical reflection or revealed doctrine, and it is this that makes their relationship a particularly vexed one. Here, I shall try to distinguish between two deceptively similar statements: 'Belief in God' and 'Belief in the Existence of God', as it sheds light on the larger paradoxical relationship between Philosophy and Theology.

In a religious or a spiritual framework, knowledge of truth or reality is synonymous with knowledge of God. In effect, what can be termed the 'theological knowledge of reality' is intended as the fabric of the religious life for the formation of doctrines (religae) that instigate and govern a way of life - a religion. And, insofar as our faculties can differentiate theory from practice, the way of divine life, of being religious, is distinguishable from the corresponding sacred doctrine. Therefore, in this context, two modes of knowledge attainment can be identified: the first is theoretical knowledge (of doctrine); the second is practical knowledge (of practice). However, a crucial paradox arises with this distinction. The study of doctrine does not necessitate religious life, and there is little doubt that perfect practice can come about without the necessity of doctrinal claims.

If divine life or practice is the sought after ideal of the religious life, philosophy on the other hand favours a preoccupation with thought, and reflecting upon the essence and existence of the world, its truth and reality, is the mainspring of philosophical intellectualism. The most direct difference between essence and existence is in the meaning of definition where two modes of defining make up philosophical inquiry: defining ultimate existence brings about seeing the world as it is (being defined as being) and, as we seek definite, precise definitions, the appropriation and fitting of our knowledge of essences in their rightful place or classification. Again, this poses a question which has been central to the history of Western philosophy: should our point of departure be, using a methodological distinction from the science of Kalam (Islamic Theology), to existentialise or to essentialise Being? Should we follow Plato or Aristotle?
Now Aristotle's emphasis on existence is well-established and his taxonomical zeal has left behind many of the categories that we use today. Platonism, on the other hand, proposes truth to be necessary, unbounded by categories of existence. In effect, Aristotle's concept of existential being stands face to face with Plato's notion where the Ultimate essence is a limitless horizon of knowing. This dualistic difference between essence and existence has been the locomotive of the established, conventional, history of Western philosophy which sets Aristotle's peripatetic philosophy in sharp contrast with Platonism.

But what governs the dualistic relationship between essence and existence? It is ultimately a question of priorities. Avicenna (the Latinised name for Ibn Sina, 980-1037 A.D.) framed the difference between essence and existence in terms of precedence. The essence of God in Avicenna is his existence, as opposed to all other beings, where one has to sharply distinguish their existence from their essence. Avicenna sees existence as not identical with, but accidental to essence. Averroes (the Latinised name for Ibn Rushd, 1126-1198), on the other hand, strongly criticised Avicenna on this point.

A pioneer of Aristotelian philosophy, his overarching concern was to show that notion of the pure accidentalism of existence is simplistic. The vast majority of Latin scholastics followed Averroes's interpretation, notably Thomas Aquinas (circa 1226-1274). However, Aquinas did accept the validity of Avicenna's distinction between essence and existence while (in virtue of his theologo-philosophical canonisation of Christian doctrine in terms of categories of existence) making sure to distance himself from any form of essentialism. To him, essence and existence are not only identical in God, but God is above all esse subsistens (exists by Himself), affirming existence as the essence of God.

It is no mere accident then that scholastic theology has been predominantly Aristotelian, as opposed to various forms of mystical, theological Platonisms. By definition, Theology, as science of God, is not the same as metaphysics, or science of being, as in Philosophy. However, for Avicenna, philosophical sciences are divided into theoretical and practical, and metaphysics is basically the study of being, and although God is not its first object, it is its most noble one.

The idea that God 'is not its most immediate object' is of course something at odds with theology, where God is the object of sacred doctrine, bounded by divine revelation as its essence and source of authority. One can simply look at the history of heresy, to see that the primary indicator of heresy has been whether or not philosophies are founded on pagan Greek philosophy rather than divinely revealed doctrine.

It is difficult for theology to be a-philosophical in the Greek sense (signifying absence), for, to borrow a phrase from Martin Heidegger, the necessity of discourse/utterance to break the silence of Being. A-philosophical theologies, however, staying away from postulates of existence, have a sense of yearning towards non-existence, a sort of conceptless-ness of truth, or indeed a form of 'blind faith'.

Theologies with little concern for doctrine, by comparison, are by definition practical. Philosophical appropriations of religious doctrines have a focus on the 'How' to be religious as opposed to 'What' religion is; to allow practice to supersede theory, and to make the duality 'essence/Being' primary to that of 'existence/doctrine'. The 'mysticism' of the Desert Fathers is one example from Christian ecclesiastical chronologies. Here, theology, if exists at all, is at best a mode of being-towards the essence of doctrine to refine religious practice, which could include prayer, giving to the poor and honouring thy neighbour.

Yoking philosophy on to theology invariably requires existential questioning as to what doctrine is, or whether a particular stance on the substance of Angels, or Demons, is True or False, and as far as the activity of religion is concerned, doubt is the vacuum in which practice halts. Practitioners of faith are less worried as to whether doctrines, fixed and unchanging, are true or false.

For them, the task of the intellect is to know the practice of being in faith, and in due time the deepening conviction of it. Theology - or knowledge of God - as a way of life in a-philosophical theologies, such as that of the early Christian fathers, becomes a corpus of treatises and wise sayings on how to manage and organise a monastery, with touches of mystical reflection; in them one sees an unsystematic theology, scarcely philosophical and purely dedicated to betterment of one's self in relation to God and worship. At the same time, Aquinas becomes the epitome of philosophical theological thought, wholly concerned with whether God, the ultimate religious reality, exists.

Belief in the existence of God, and knowledge of that God, is philosophical theology's ultimate concern, and the mainspring of its self-reflection. However, searching for what God is comes with the implicit premise that God is a reality, hence predicating essence over existence. Philosophical theology thus operates as a set of inherited ways - somewhat unchanging, fixed in time - where practice is open-ended, corresponding to knowledge of essence, and where the self is the free possible horizon, not God's impossible, necessary existence.

Therefore, Belief in God, the result of mystical practice and knowledge, is not the same as Belief in the Existence of God, because the former rests on implicit knowledge of reality, while the latter rests on the vindication of its very existence, on truth. One approach is a struggle to know the already knowable, while the other is an endeavour to fathom an accidental property of Being - that of existence. In other words, knowledge of reality from within 'belief in God', is of 'what' this reality is, its meaning and relevance, whereas knowledge from within 'Belief in the Existence of God' is of vindication and proof; reality in the former sense is looked at in the face, and in the latter the human intellect is preoccupied with the demonstration of its being 'there' – of its existence.

To Avicenna, God is the Necessary Existent, which might imply in the outset that the essence of the ultimate is existence. But, this kind of existence of God is clearly set apart from the idea of existence given to Beings other than God. God exists 'in virtue of Himself', that is: He is necessarily existent. On the other hand, lesser Beings exist 'by virtue of another'.

Proposing a distinction between philosophical and a-philosophical theology whereby belief in the existence of God belongs to the former, and the latter is Belief in God, may imply a rigid paradox between essence and existence. But this is not necessarily the case. Though identifying essence with existence in God is commonplace both in philosophy and theology, it is again a question of the priorities that run through discourse on Being; breaking the silence of Being.

Thinking in terms of 'Whether ultimate Reality exists' terminates the possibility of essence, and reduces it to confessional vindications of truths. Thus, existence becomes the essence of all essences, at all levels. More importantly, this being the case, Necessity enters into the realm of speculation and doubt, making the critical balance between theory and practice difficult to attain. On the other hand, still assuming identity of essence and existence in God, if essence precedes existence, the existence of God becomes accidental to his essence and his existence - if talked about - becomes necessary, infallible and beyond existential questioning.

Of course theologies abound in different forms, and it would be imprudent to classify one theology as being one or the other. The distinction I have made here must not imply a classification where one theology can only fit in one or the other, but rather that theologies have a sense of yearning, an inclination towards non-concept, and non-existence.

Even the theology of Anselm of Canterbury (circa 1033-1109) could be seen to remain 'philosophical' in spite of the fact that it shows a tendency towards God not merely as a concept but as a reality that one has to come to terms with - a yearning to the Desert Fathers' unsystematic, indeed un-philosophical mysticism.

Anselm seems to push aside the question of God's existence to the utmost limit of possible silence-towards-God because for him the question of God's existence is only the 'fool's questioning'. It is the fool's foolishness that makes them think they could in their heart reject God, or rather say that he does not exist. Anselm's essence comes with the definition of God as 'that than which nothing greater can be conceived'.

Such conceptualisation presupposes three parameters that lend to non-concept and non-existence in the philosophical sense. The first is the hierarchy of Greatness. All renderings of what God is, is doomed to falsehood, therefore the ultimate essence is beyond apprehension. The second parameter is the 'that-ness', or otherness of God. God's identity is not an immediate premise, it is beyond and necessary. Finally, and most importantly, the human limit as to the attainment of final knowledge of God's essence.

Putting God in the sphere of existence is in itself a false negation or rejection of the inconceivable greatness of God. In effect, God's untenable greatness does not allow for existence to be in question; it is irrelevant, accidental, foolishness. Anselm's God is great to the point of inconceivability of both existence and non-existence, and as a category it is implicit and necessary. Existential questioning as far as Anselm is concerned is a result of ignorance of the undeniable essence of the unmoved mover.

But is Anselm's definition of God really an extrapolated 'ontological proof of God's existence'? In this sense, his account on God is not so much a 'proof' as a descriptive doctrine about Reality and the essence of God's Being. As much as it could look like a philosophical proof of God's existence from the point of view of our own philosophical interests and questionings, or as French philosopher Rene Descartes (1596-1650) reformulated it as an 'ontological proof' for the existence of God, it might not have been the point of view of Anselm himself. His definition does not seek to vindicate God's existence by way of demonstration; rather it puts the questioning agent in a place where they are ignorant of the true nature of God. It is at best a criticism of the very attitude of yoking existence onto God, because God's essence according to Anselm is an implicit truth, existent by itself and for itself.

Anselm moves from philosophy to what I have called a-philosophy, insofar as his thought emanates from the premise that God's existence is necessary, an implicit truth uncontained in doctrinal discourse. For Anselm, the essence of God is the ultimate concern for the community of the faithful, whereby any questioning concerning existence is for the ignorant. For him, belief in God is an authentically simple concept, a complete faith-driven idea of Him with little concern for existence. In Anselm's theology one sees a priority of essence over existence.

Belief in God is different from Belief in the Existence of God. And, this distinction, in turn, sheds light on the difficult relationship between Philosophy and Theology and between essentialism and existentialism.

Address for correspondence:Yahya Haidar, Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies, Australian National University, Canberra

Email:  <>