Thursday, 3 September 2015

Descartes' Menagerie of Demons (2015)

From The Philosopher, Volume CIII No. 2

By Danko Antolovic

Recent films like The Matrix trilogy and Science fiction in general have made many people familiar with the Cartesian demon: a powerful entity able to intercept all the mind's inputs and outputs and manipulate them in order to create an impenetrable illusion - the matrix - in which I think, I perceive and in which I think, I act - yet which is, in reality,  entirely generated by the demon.

René Descartes introduces such a demon in his Meditations on the First Philosophy, in which he seeks to ascertain what, if anything, is absolutely true. He argues as follows: the evidence of my senses is not reliable because it is logically possible that all of my sensory impressions are fabricated by the demon: I may not have a body, nor sense organs, the world may not exist at all, there may be no such things as matter and space. All that I am sure of is that I think and I know that I think, therefore I cannot be nothing. I must be something, a thinking thing, and no demon can deceive me into believing that I am if I am not. (I use the first person singular here to denote analytic introspection, just as Descartes did originally.)

Descartes further asks:
I have established something that I am certain of - I exist - but why is it that I am certain of it? 
It is, he argues, because I can see it very clearly, with complete immediacy. He then asserts an important principle: what I can see very clearly in my mind must be true. What else do I see very clearly? I see that I have certain ideas, and they must be something and not nothing because it is I, the thinking thing that exists, who has them. All my thoughts truly exist, my perceptions also exist insofar that they are a form of my thoughts, even if their content is fabricated by the demon. Further, I see very clearly certain relationships between my ideas. For example, I have the idea of the triangle as a geometric figure, and from that idea it follows that the sum of its angles always equals two right angles: to see that, I can follow a simple geometric proof, each step of which I can clearly grasp. Similarly, any other mathematical truth is equally evident.

In this principle of 'seeing things very clearly' Descartes encounters a second demon, the demon of sensory habit. This demon does not have the mind-enslaving, matrix-spawning power of the first demon (in fact, philosopher David Hume secured quite a firm grip on its pointed tail a century later), but it is a sly and seductive imp: it makes me extrapolate commonplace sensory experiences into universal truths. For instance, the idea of a triangle and the theorem about the sum of its angles follow from Euclid's axioms of ordinary geometry, and these axioms are self-evident because they describe, in a somewhat idealised fashion, my common sensory experiences. The 'ordinary' geometry describes a so-called flat space, the only space that most of us will ever perceive, but our actual physical space is in fact very slightly curved, because of the proximity of a large mass, our Earth. This is not of purely academic concern either: the Global Positioning System (or GPS), which keenly impacts our modern life, takes into account this non-flatness of space in order to provide accurate locations. If we could draw a large triangle in space near the Earth, by shining laser beams from one satellite to another, we would find that the sum of its angles is slightly but measurably less than 180 degrees.

I see clearly that the sum of angles of a triangle adds to two right angles, but this clarity is an illusion created by the two demons: the first one created a sensory world of the flat space for me, and the second made me believe that my habitual sensory impressions constitute a universal truth. Had the matrix-demon fashioned my sensory world to appear like the vicinity of an enormously dense stellar object, such as a black hole or a neutron star, my intuition of triangles would be noticeably different.

I must therefore suspect my intuitions. I cannot deny my self-awareness, nor the reality of my thoughts, but most of my intuitions are derived from the sensory world, and are therefore subject to demons' influence. I find within me the speculative ability to set my own rules (axioms), independent of the senses, and investigate where they lead by drawing various interesting and self-consistent conclusions from them. But even here I see the hand of the habit-demon: I follow the rules of logic and insist on self-consistency as an abstract requirement, but I really do it because these things work in the real world and make intelligent discourse possible. But if the reality is demon's illusion and there isn't anybody to conduct intelligent discourse with, then I may well let the devil take all logic and consistency: what still remains is my self-awareness and the clear intuition of my existence as the Cartesian 'thinking thing.'

Having established the reality of himself as a thinking thing, Descartes asks : where did I come from? If I had created myself, I would have the remarkable ability to create something from nothing, and surely I would be aware of that. On the contrary, I find no such ability in me, and I see that I am a very limited being. Something greater than me must have created me, and that thing itself does not need a creator, and is God. Moreover, I have a very clear idea of God, and since a finite thing cannot give rise to an infinite one, this idea was placed in me by this greater being, and therefore God exists.

Appealing repeatedly to the principle that what is seen clearly must be true, Descartes continues: the idea of God includes every perfection, and therefore it must include existence, because that which exists is more perfect than that which does not. It is contradictory to think of God as non-existent, and therefore again, God must exist. Finally, all deception, however cunning, is an imperfection, a sign of weakness, and therefore the perfect God cannot be a deceiver. Because of God's perfection I know that I am not at the mercy of a demon, and - and this is an astounding feat of circular reasoning - because of that same perfection and honesty of God, I can be certain that what I see clearly must be true.

Objections to Descartes' reasoning about God were raised early on by his contemporaries. We could say that Descartes fell prey here to a third demon, the demon of the childhood's 'Why?' which must have an answer to every question. It is not malevolent, this sprite of infantile curiosity, but with its childlike insistence on answers it can seduce me into preferring a flawed explanation over no explanation at all. How flawed? For one thing, it does not follow that the idea of an infinite being could not arise within me, by my own power: I can envision finite beings that are less limited than me, and the idea of an infinite being is an abstraction from that, a postulated absence of any limitation. I grasp such a concept the same way I grasp the Euclidean concept of an infinite line: not as a concrete thing, perceived in all its parts, but as an absence of any upper bound on its length. It is true that I do not know my origin as a thinking thing, but it does not follow that my speculative concept of an infinite being corresponds to anything transcending my thought or existing outside it.

In his second argument for God's existence, Descartes more or less repeats the well-known proof proposed by Anselm of Canterbury: imagine the most perfect of all things; if it does not exist, it is less perfect than it would be if it did, and so is not the most perfect; therefore the most perfect thing must exist, and is God. Much has been said and written about Anselm; let us just pursue the point that this most perfect being must be omnipotent, since not being able to do something is an imperfection. So, can the omnipotent God create a stone that is too heavy for him to lift? If he is omnipotent, he must be able to do everything, including depriving himself of omnipotence or being both at once. The notion of omnipotence includes its own opposite and leads to contradictions, and the God of Anselm and Descartes is either self-contradictory or else transcending logic and contradiction, and is incomprehensible in either case.

Why is any of this important? During the last few centuries, empirical/scientific way of thinking has effectively superseded the older reliance on beliefs that cannot be justified with the evidence of the senses. To be sure, many unfounded propositions are regularly bandied about in public and private discourse; however, when it comes to practical decisions that entail allocation of scarce resources and hard effort, be these decisions public or private, we exercise sober factuality and do not act on the basis of augury, prayers, sacrificial offerings or hallowed traditions. We are expected to be scientific about it, and we approach all hypotheses as potentially false, trusting them only when they are backed by incontrovertible evidence.

Descartes' 'Meditations' are a remarkable early attempt of a scientific mind to come to terms with the implications of the method of skeptical inquiry. Descartes takes skeptical empiricism at its word, and asks: 'All right, what can I know for certain if I follow this method?' The stark answer is: nothing, except my own thoughts. Now, scientific judgment deals in probabilities rather than in absolute certainty, and it is easy to respond that the straightforward alternative - the world exists and looks something like the image presented by our senses - is a likelier one than Descartes' fantastically contrived matrix-demon. That is not an entirely honest answer, however: we deem the demon unlikely because our practical knowledge tells us that such a feat would be enormously difficult to pull off within our sensory world. What is likely or unlikely outside the sensory world, and that is where Descartes' hypothetical demon resides, we have no means of judging. It is more honest to admit that we cannot distinguish a 'real' sensory world from seamless illusion, and that the entire empirical enterprise proceeds on the assumption that the demon does not exist, since we could do nothing about it if it did.

More significant than the demon itself, for modern empirical thought, is the chasm that Descartes' reasoning opened between the knower and the known. I know myself as a thinking thing with absolute clarity, and I know nothing certain about the physical things that I perceive with my senses. That distinguishes, in Descartes' view, the mind and the (hypothetical) body as two entirely different substances right from the start. Later in the 'Meditations,' after he had re-established the existence of the physical world by means of divine goodness, Descartes again observes that the mind is perceived as one, clear and indivisible, while all bodies are divisible and subject to erroneous and imperfect knowledge. It can be said that scientific empiricism operates within this framework of Cartesian duality to this day.

Modern empiricism tacitly accepts the existence of a lucid mind, a knower behind all the factual knowing. There is a self that is not mistaken about its existence, somebody who (discounting the verifiable effects of sleep, inebriation, illness or random distractions) sees things clearly and whose thoughts exist reliably. The knower is susceptible to the habit-demon, but that demon can be exorcised relatively easily: on one hand, there are provisional, inductive generalisations that we draw from sensory experience, and we call them scientific theories. But we can also draw abstract generalisations, axiomatic systems of pure mathematics, which are constructs of the mind independent of the evidence of the senses, and as long as we are conscious of the difference, the habit-demon has no dominion over us. And then there is the sensory world which, in agreement with Descartes, we acknowledge as something that is independent of our will and thought. We accept the simplifying assumption that something distinct from the knower, an objective knowable world, lies behind the sensory evidence, and that it is not a fabrication. The great open question of scientific empiricism is whether this duality of knower and known is resolvable or not.

Subsuming the sensory world under my 'self' by a pure act of mind seems to be possible only as a fantasy... 

Descartes himself bypasses this duality by invoking the agency of God, the omnipotent, never-deceiving being in whom all intellectual difficulties are resolved. But this is only a subterfuge that stops further inquiry. The omnipotent being is self-contradictory, the ultimate idol-demon that stands outside any logical discourse available to the human mind and admits only of solitary, all-abandoning faith: a credo quia absurdum (I believe, because it is absurd).

Without invoking supernatural help of such calibre, we may attempt to resolve Cartesian duality by absorbing the sensory world into the mind itself: what we perceive as sensory input is the product of the mind, the world is maya, an illusion which the spirit is trapped in. This is not an illogical position, but it is difficult to see where to go with it. I perceive my conscious mind as an indivisible entity, known as well as it can be, and I 'see clearly' that it is not generating my sensory world. If the world is the mind's product, it must be coming from some part of my mind that I have no access to, and which is then already in the realm of the matrix-demon. Is it possible for me to gain that access, to awaken into an enlightened state from which I can see the unity of the knower and the known? Not by any immediately obvious act of my conscious mind. Meditative traditions prescribe practices by which such states can be supposedly attained, but they generally work on the physiology that surrounds the mind, and thereby tacitly acknowledge the phenomenal world as independent and capable of influencing the mind. That is hardly anything new, and there is little reason to believe that meditative traditions have somehow spiritually accounted for the sensory world. Subsuming the sensory world under my 'self' by a pure act of mind seems to be possible only as a fantasy.

We can also take the opposite approach and assume that the objective world truly exists, and that knowledge of it is a reflection, a trace of the world within some physical entity capable of retaining such a trace; in other words, we will subsume the knower under the known. We will then follow the images of the world through sensory organs and into the nervous system; inside, we will discover memories, which are accumulated records of earlier traces of the world; we will find neural structures that classify, process and summarise past and present traces of the world, and other structures that initiate actions on the basis of this processing, all the way out again to the motor signals that move the body and make it act upon the outside world. And the matrix-demon will say: 'I hope you enjoyed my little show. It is a pity you weren't available to take part in it.'

And of course, according to all that is known about the phenomenal world, I could not be present within that show. Nothing in the known physics translates the computations and signal processing within the nervous system (or anywhere else) into a subjective experience; I, the thinking thing, which cannot be mistaken about its own existence, do not arise from material phenomena which do not know that they exist. Not only is the world a construct of the demon: all the physiology surrounding my perceiving, knowing, feeling, willing, all the actions of the mind are part of the matrix. All except the element ergo sum in Descartes' famous cogito, that one part of the thinking thing which is aware of itself and cannot be fooled about it. This is roughly the argument which the philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz raised against materialist interpretation of the mind, half a century after Descartes, and that argument still stands.

Unless there is a way out. Perhaps there is something still unknown in the structure of the world, some subtle organisation of matter that lets mindless signal processing loop back onto itself, look into a mirror somehow, and give rise to self-awareness. That is a wildly speculative proposition, one which, as scientists, we are willing to entertain only because nothing can be a priori - self-evidently - excluded from the world of phenomena. If I could derive my existent self-awareness from the phenomenal world, I would know that both I and the world existed, the knower and the known would be reconciled, and Descartes' demon would be exorcised once and for all.

And so, following Descartes into modern scientific empiricism, we are left with a curious choice, a dilemma whose factual resolution, if a resolution is possible at all, must profoundly shake the cherished self-image of mankind. Either the 'thinking thing' is a solitary thought of unknowable origin and destiny, fundamentally different from the world which it perceives and of whose existence it can never be sure; or it is an ephemeral spray of self-awareness on the waves of the unthinking ocean below, a wisp of thought, a form bound to an unknown fate among all the other ever-changing forms of the material world.

Contact details:
Dr. Danko Antolovic is a scientist and technologist at Indiana University, in Bloomington, Indiana, United States.


Wednesday, 2 September 2015

What is Power? (2015)

From The Philosopher, Volume CIII No. 2

Perspectives and Speculations

By Gregory Kyle Klug

Elemental power?

What is Power? 

A Reuters headline of 18 April 2014 reads 'Powerful earthquake rattles Mexico, shakes buildings.' The earthquake is powerful in that it overcomes the resistance of land and buildings. Isaac Asimov writes of inventor Johann Gutenberg: 'he introduced printing as a powerful force in human affairs.' Printing enables ideas to be widely disseminated, thereby initiating thoughts in people's minds that would otherwise not have been initiated. The passive resistance offered by whatever else people were thinking is overcome by new ideas - ideas that originated in the mind of a writer. Even the active resistance of other people's ideas may be overcome with different ideas. John Locke's sub-title to his Two Treatises on Government reads, 'The false principles and foundation of Sir Robert Filmer and his followers are detected and overthrown.' Locke overthrows someone else's principles, and replaces them with his own. The change takes place in readers' minds as he convinces and persuades them using the power of intellect and imagination.

How then should power be conceived? The variety of contexts in which the word 'power' is used demonstrates the difficulty in establishing a clear and all-encompassing definition. Consider some other cases:
• Lord Henry in Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray refers to his enemies, self-flatteringly, as 'all men of some intellectual power;'

• Musicologist Susan McClary describes Bizet's anti-heroine Carmen: 'She arouses desire' and 'apparently has the power to deliver or withhold gratification of the desires she instills;'

• Socrates articulates the capstone of Plato's Republic: 'Until...the kings and princes of this world have the spirit and power of philosophy...cities will never have rest from their evils-no, nor the human race...''

• Solomon writes: ' Where the word of a king is there is power; and who may say unto him, What doest thou?'
What do the power of an earthquake, intelligent enemies, a seductive gypsy-woman, philosopher-kings, and the printing press all have in common? If these and similar uses of the term are legitimate, which I take them to be, then any definition of power must be flexible enough to explain them all - and yet focused enough to distinguish power from similar ideas embodied by words like 'strength', 'might',  'influence', 'domination' and so on.

Webster defines power as 'the ability to do or act.' Perhaps this is true from some perspective, but intuitively it seems too simple and broad. Max Weber instead defines power as 'the probability that one actor within a social relationship will be in a position to carry out his own will despite resistance.' But resistance, as seen above, may be either passive or active. Power is thus not limited to ' social' contexts. This notion is parallel to Locke's description of active power as an attribute of spirit and passive power of matter.

Two things, then, cause physical motion in the universe: firstly, the motion of other physical bodies - 'accidents' - which can be traced back to other physical motions and ultimately to the Big Bang; and secondly, spirit, or the will of conscious agency. The physical motion directly under the control of a human being exists in the form of its physical body; and while the energy of the body is determined by the laws of conservation, the available energy is like money in a bank account which one has the ability to spend or conserve at will. Thus the motion that I produce is different than that of the earth orbiting the sun, or a gust of wind blowing down a tree, or a rock rolling down a hill. What I do is determined by my will alone.

However, the forces of pain and pleasure that create incentives that influence my will. Like magnetic forces, they push and pull my decisions. The heat of the fire causes me to remove my hand; the hunger of my stomach causes me to pick berries in the field - whether to eat, or for hire so I can buy steak. Different people respond to the incentives of pain and pleasure differently. On one extreme, the hedonist seeks to lay down before the force of pleasure, allowing it to guide his or her actions despite harm caused to others. On the opposite extreme, the ascetic seeks to resist pleasure as a form of self-discipline. On another spectrum is the 'prudent' and the 'fool'.

The former foregoes pleasure or endures pain in the present for the sake of greater pleasure or less pain in the future; the latter doesn't know or care about the difference. The prudent takes time into account; the fool doesn't - but both are guided by the perception of pain and pleasure, whether present or future.

True power is the ability to choose freely despite the influence of pain or pleasure when necessary. In this sense, love, courage, and patience defy the predictions of pain and pleasure over one's actions. 'He that is slow to anger is better than the mighty,' Solomon utters, 'and he that rules his spirit than the one that takes a city.' The one who controls his passions, rather than is controlled by them, demonstrates as much and even more power than the man of war.

Solomon understood power. 'Wisdom is better than weapons of war'. 'A soft tongue breaks the bone.' Throughout his writings, the ancient thinker identifies the limitations of physical power in comparison with other things: wisdom, words, and women. He also intimates that power, coveted as it is, is not the sole object of value in life:
To everything there is a season ... a time to be born and a time to die ... a time to weep and a time to laugh ... a time to get and a time to lose.
In the book of Genesis, the first thing God says to man and woman is, 'Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.' The injunction implies various forms of power: procreative power - 'be fruitful and multiply'; physical power - 'subdue the earth'; and intellectual power - 'have dominion over' animals that are physically more powerful than you. Power in this broad sense is integral to what it means to be human. The constructive and cooperative exercise of power is, or at least should be, the province of the entire human race.

The story of the Garden of Eden illustrates how pain and pleasure are powerful forces determining human action. The object of resistance to moral power, therefore, is one's own tendency to succumb to the subjective 'force' of pain and pleasure despite perceived moral imperatives. Under this view, moral power is a paradox whereby one strives for mastery over the active resistance within oneself. Thus, Plato's 'power of philosophy,' whereby the lover of absolute truth rules the 'wild beast nature,' common to all, within himself.

Moral power is thus the ability to attain mastery over oneself. The exercise of moral power is by definition active, since inanimate matter is obviously incapable of moral or immoral action. The object of resistance, again, does not originate from any external source, but within oneself when tempted. As the New Testament author, James, writes: 'Every man is tempted when he is drawn away by his own lust and enticed.' This theme is developed throughout the Biblical canon, and is also evident in the Islamic conception of greater Jihad - the 'struggle against oneself.'

If power is the ability to overcome resistance, what then is the object of resistance to intellectual power? The etymology of the words used to describe the activity of the mind - taken to be the source of intellectual power - is illuminating. To process literally means to 'go forward.' To perceive literally means to 'grasp' or 'seize.' The one who processes information and perceives a conclusion 'goes forward and grasps' something. The conclusion resists passively by remaining hidden unless one observes and seizes it.

Or consider the word concentration. It literally means to 'bring to the centre.' This implies motion - subjective and metaphorical, but real nonetheless. One who concentrates 'pulls' something into the centre of his attention. The word calculate derives from calculus which in times past literally signified a pebble used to count with. Here again metaphorical motion is implied: the processing of pebbles.

Owen Barfield calls human languages a body of metaphors: Examples abound on every page of the dictionary. As C.S. Lewis also observes, it is impossible to speak of non-physical realities without in some way using metaphor. Other metaphors besides 'pebbles' may describe the object of intellectual resistance - 'intellectual ideas' for example. Appearances to the contrary, this is no escape from metaphorical speech: 'intellectual' is akin to the Latin intellegere, 'to distinguish' or 'choose between'; and the Greek idéa signifies 'form' or 'pattern,' akin to the verb ideîn 'to see.'

Once again, and inescapably, a physical sensation or activity - distinguishing different forms - is analogous to a subjective, metaphysical reality.

And what about imagination? Intellect and strength without imagination are powerless. Imagination thus causes something to exist that wouldn't exist otherwise. The power of imagination causes something to exist that wouldn't exist otherwise - either in the mind, or in the physical world through physical execution. Without imagination, reality would have remained formless and void. In terms of The Never-ending Story, imagination is confronted by The Nothing. The Nothing is the object of resistance to the imagination; to yield to it is to cease to imagine.

Yet if the ability to imagine -  that is, to conceive images or phenomenalistic ideas in the mind as if out of nothing - is indeed a unique form of power, what then is the object of resistance to it? The object of resistance to imagination is, familiarly, whatever else the subject's attention is occupied with.

Without imagination, reality will continue to be what it is - unable to be anything other than what it is, incapable of changing its state or course. The mind, apart from imagination, is occupied with reality simply as it is - determined either by nature or other minds. With imagination, however, one may conceive something other than what already exists. This act takes place in the mind, and the thing imagined can potentially (if it is not impossible by definition) be expressed and/or made real in the physical world. The one who imagines a doghouse in his backyard can chop down a tree and labor with this end result in mind. He works having imagined what he will make.

In his powerful 'I Have a Dream' speech, Martin Luther King imagined things that were different than the contemporary reality of race inequality in the United States, and that have since become reality to a significant extent (although not yet completely). Again, Ronald Reagan in his speech at the Berlin wall in 1987 said, 'Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!' He imagined and spoke something other than what his military foes had imagined, and saw his vision become reality not long after.

No one form of power seems to have absolute superiority. However, physical power often ranks lowest. The moral power of India under Gandhi's leadership overcame British rule in that country. The intellectual and creative power of humans has made us the most powerful species on earth (a status which implies the responsibility to serve our fellow creatures and care for the world we have inherited). Delilah's the sexual appeal overcame Samson's heroic might. In all cases, however, the feeling of power is profound and itself a powerful motivator of human action. Any conception of power that ignores the metaphysical forms thereof ignores with them the chorus of poets, prophets, and philosophers over the ages who testify to them, and surely also the evidence of personal experience and intuition.

Contact details: Gregory Kyle is a composer with a doctorate from the University of Northern Colorado and currently based in Phoenix, Arizona.

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Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Review: Epistemology ... After Roy Harris? (2015)

From The Philosopher, Volume CIII No. 2

Gustavo Fares


After Epistemology, by Roy HarrisPaperback: vi + 187 pp, Publisher: Brightpen, Gamlingay (2009), ISBN: 978 07552 1180 7

I have long maintained a special interest in the field of epistemology – under its ‘established’ conception as the examination of the nature, acquisition and scope of human knowledge.  The death of  Roy Harris, formerly Professor of General Linguistics in the University of Oxford,  in February 2015 recently prompted me to re-read and re-appraise one of his many books, After Epistemology.  I thought a new attempt to read and understand the book could provide me with some insights which had evaded me the first time around.

Harris attempts to undermine the nature and implications of the classical model of language – roughly the idea that each word has a meaning which is either a physical object or a mental concept. and its implications through a In a succession of chapters, each he  providing provides  a critical, and in some cases a hostile, treatment of the views of one or more thinkers who espoused the classical model of language, including Plato and Aristotle, Francis Bacon, and the empiricists Locke, Hume and A.J. Ayer. This culminates in a discussion of Ferdinand de Saussure, who is acknowledged as the earliest thinker to appreciate that the words speakers use to say something do not always or typically function as names, and that it is quite wrong to suppose that each word ‘corresponds’ to a particular thing or type of thing, independently of the context and purpose of the utterance.

A chapter entitled ‘Beyond Saussure’ provides a brief introduction to what Harris calls integrationism, which is a certain approach to linguistics which he himself helped develop. The integrational approach rejects the notions of telementation classical model of linguistic meaning and replaces it by the classical model by the following two theoretical axioms: (1) What constitutes a sign is not given independently of the situation in which it occurs or of its material manifestation in that situation. (2) The value of a sign (i.e. its ‘signification’) is a function of the integrational proficiency which its identification and interpretation presuppose.

The notion of integration, as it applies to the study of signs and their meanings, is not immediately clear. ‘Integration’ suggests the bringing together into a coherent and structured whole a set of diverse elements – but, it may be asked, what are these elements and what constitutes this bringing together? Another work by Harris, his essay ‘Integrationism: A Very Brief Introduction’, offers a clearer explanation of his fundamental idea. He writes here that:
“The term integrational alludes to the recognition that the linguistic sign alone cannot function as the basis of an independent, self-sufficient form of communication, but depends for effectiveness on its integration with non-verbal activities of many different kinds. These include all those [activities] that do not depend in any way on being able to speak or write; i.e. most of the basic activities needed for everyday living (eating, drinking, bodily movement, standing up, lying down, walking, fetching and carrying, avoiding obstacles, using elementary tools, paying attention to objects and happenings in the immediate environment, etc.). This ubiquitous prelinguistic substrate of behaviour is a prerequisite for the emergence and maintenance of verbal communication in all its forms”.
This remark seems to say that a sign, or better, the use of a sign on a particular occasion, takes its meaning or communicative content from its connection to the non-verbal activities which speaker and hearer jointly engage in. If this interpretation is correct, integrational linguistics bears certain similarities to Wittgenstein’s ideas about the way the uses of words are woven into the fabric of various human activities or ‘forms of life’

How do the insights of integrational linguistics bear on our understanding of knowledge? Harris makes the point that what people know is revealed by what they do and say. He writes that “knowledge is a form of creative activity. This involves being able to integrate past, present and future experience in a productive programme directed towards a goal”. Further, that “knowledge is intrinsically goal-directed and commonly involves interaction with others pursuing related goals”. He goes on to say that the integrationist approach to knowledge could be regarded as a version of reliabilism, i.e. the philosophical theory that knowledge is belief formed by procedures found to be reliable in the past.

On this view knowing how to do something is more fundamental than knowing that something is the case. Truth enters the picture only if success or failure in our programmes of goal-directed knowledge depend on it. We have to live in the here-and-now, and this forms the intrinsic context knowledge. What we know, Harris says, may be revised in the light of new discoveries or developments in future, but we can’t wait for humanity’s best judgment.

All this is appears at once familiar and also controversial. It is reminiscent of the American pragmatist tradition with its emphasis on knowledge as inquiry, fallibilism, the practical consequences of holding a belief and so on. However, other philosophers think that the uncertainties of scientific theory and speculation presuppose a base of certainty. Isn’t there a species of knowledge which is certain and indubitable, in that it consists in one’s sensory contact with objects in one’s environment?

In Harris’s view, saying ‘I see a birch tree’ goes beyond sense perception, since such knowledge begins by identifying what is seen, and this involves interpretation. This in turn involves integrating present visual experience with past visual experience and (mysteriously) future experience. This last point seems particularly obscure, if only because integrating words into non-verbal activities is different from integrating present and past and future visual data, and Harris does not provide any explanation of the psychological mechanism of sensory integration.

When I look for my car in a parking lot and in due course I identify it, my memory of what my car looks like – its shape and colour, together with the number plate – comes into play; but this is not all, since my understanding of what a car is, and my belief that the red car at the far end of the parking lot is my car, involve the application of prior knowledge of the function of cars in general and the workings of this particular vehicle. This consideration in no way justifies the claim that my identification of my car is a matter of ‘integrating’ present and past visual data brought under an interpretation which is by its very nature uncertain. If we choose certain other examples, it becomes even more difficult to find Harris’s position remotely plausible. When I see my friend, am I supposed to be making a risky interpretation of what I see? When I hear a tune which is very familiar to me and I identify it as Auld Lang Syne, am I interpreting something in the nature of auditory experiences?

Harris proceeds to argue that philosophers often reduce knowledge (said to be a creative activity) to information (an abstract reification of what is known). Conflating knowledge with information begins with writing, the systematic record-keeping and expansion of archives, and data in a computer memory. “Information is the static, inert residue to which knowledge dwindles when subjected to persistent and systematic reification”. When I know something, I can proceed with any of a number of relevant activities, which might include telling someone about what I know. If I tell someone what I know, I convert knowledge into information.
“That conversion requires a process of communication. Information, unlike knowledge, is always second-hand or third hand or umpteenth-hand. It is available in principle to as many people as are linked in any particular chain of communication.  Knowledge, on the other hand, belongs to the individual or individuals personally engaged in its creation”.
Harris seems to regard knowledge as not just a creative activity, but a mental activity. But what are the distinctive characteristics of this activity? It can’t be simply a psychological event or state like a dull pain in the shoulder which a person may find it impossible to describe accurately. If I know something, I know something, and normally I am able to say what this is, e.g. the birch tree in my garden is taller than the rose bush. The propositional content of an instance of knowledge enters into the character of this knowledge and distinguishes it from other instances of knowledge.

If you and I go on the website of National Train Enquiries, and you find that the first train to London leaves at 6 am and I find that the last train to London leaves at midnight, we get to know different things; if you and I find that there is a fast train at 2 pm, we get to know the same thing. We can transmit the different things we know to others, and this may be said to be information. The person to whom we provide information to may be said, equally well, to have received information from us, or to have got to know certain train times, just as you and I had acquired knowledge or information from the internet. To elevate knowledge above information on the sole grounds that the former involves a creative act and the latter is abstract and second-hand is to put forward a spurious philosophical thesis.

What seems to be most novel in Harris’s is the project of attempting to apply this kind of integrational linguistics to epistemology. Among the consequences of this view is that the words ‘knowledge’, ‘know’ and their cognates don’t have a single meaning each – they do not signify a single concept with a single set of condition for its application – but they are put to different uses in different acts of communication, e.g. to make inquiries, to inform, to acknowledge the validity of an information source. It is a consequence which Harris fails to draw explicitly.

On the contrary, he says in so many words that ‘knowledge’ signifies a creative activity, or possibly a type of mental activity comprising a range of sub-types, without explaining the import of the adjective ‘creative’. It may be observed that this adjective generally carries an implication of commendation, by contrast to ‘routine’ and ‘nothing of special value’ (e.g. a writer with a creative talent in contradistinction to a hack who writes to order). A creative activity takes a stretch of time and an inquiry or period of research may result in a discovery that counts as a contribution to knowledge. But if I see my neighbour and acknowledge him, what is the sense of claiming to be performing a creative activity? If my neighbour gives me a sour look and I interpret it as an expression of displeasure at the fact that I tend to park my car in front of his garden gate, then perhaps my interpretation has something creative about it. But even here, it makes poor sense to suggest that my interpretation of what I see consists in the creative activity of integrating present and past (let alone future) visual experiences.

Harris' project may help persuade philosophers that epistemological inquiry is best carried out without the assumption that ‘knowledge’ signifies a single concept, but on the contrary concentrate on the study of the uses of this word and its cognates in integrative relationship to human activities involved in acts of communication.

But there is still the problem of explaining what is involved in a situation where someone has correctly identified the species of a tree and correctly replied to another person’s inquiry:  'it is a birch tree', by contrast to another situation when the first has, let us say, mistaken the birch tree for a eucalyptus for and so gives false information to the other. In the former case he  knows something, in the latter he does not know what he thinks he does. Yet this crucial question of how we get to know things  - by using our senses and relying on oral and written testimony? - is hardly touched upon in Harris’s account of how language works. The deeper mysteries of language use remain unexplored.

Reviewed by Zenon Stavrinides

When Alice met Wittgenstein (2015)

Alice having tea with the Mad Hatter, the Dormouse and the March Hare*
When Alice, Wittgenstein, and Russell
met at the
Mad Hatters Tea Party

by Eric Gerlach

Logic: The art of thinking and reasoning in strict accordance with 
the limitations and incapacities of the human misunderstanding.
– Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary
Many have recognized the striking similarities between Lewis Carroll's two famous books about Alice and Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations, one of the most influential philosophical works of the last century.  Less well-known is that Alice's Adventures in Wonderland was one of Ludwig Wittgenstein's favorite books in English, for him a logician's catalog of the ways language can be misused.  Wittgenstein included Carroll's name twice in the text, and there are many close parallels between points Wittgenstein makes about philosophical nonsense and the nonsensical interactions Alice has with Carroll's characters.

So, it seems likely that, at some point, Wittgenstein was thinking of Wonderland as he penned his investigations -  but like much in  Wittgenstein, nothing can be said with complete certainty. Nonetheless, there are some clues. Wittgenstein studied and later taught at Trinity College Cambridge, in the UK, the college where Bertrand Russell. and G.E. Moore were toiling over their task to put language on a logical footing. One connection between Carroll and Wittgenstein can be found in a note Martin Gardner includes in his Annotated Alice, which mentions that Bertrand Russell was thought by many at Cambridge to look like the illustration of the Mad Hatter in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, and that Russell,  G. E. Moore  and John McTaggart, all close friends and colleagues, were known as 'the Mad Tea Party'.  Were the three compared to the mad tea party of Carroll's Wonderland merely because of physical resemblances, or are there philosophical comparisons as well?

There were actual mad tea parties in Victorian England, a technique used for teaching social behavior, such as following rules and interacting with others, to insane asylum inmates. It is likely that Carroll learned of such parties from his, favorite uncle, who was a Commissioner of Lunacy whose duties included inspecting asylums. Carroll developed early interests in mental disorders and mathematics following his uncle. and he clearly includes one in Wonderland, a place where time stands still and nonsense is spoken.  A universal and unquestionable logic, the dream of Russell, would also be an unchanging and eternal one, effectively outside of time.  We can also imagine that many at Cambridge found Russell's circle as incomprehensible as Alice found the Hatter's gathering.

Recall that Confucius said that the surest way to ruin a state is for the ruler never to suffer contradiction, and that when the ruler is wrong, he should be told.  An unchanging logic serves as a fine calculus for computers, but it is often unhelpful or even irrelevant when it comes to human interaction.  Logic should be centered on situations of interaction, not absolute certainty or the structure of isolated arguments.  When we are insecure, we long for unchanging answers and one-sided solutions, but when we are wise, we embrace life as an open and evolving adventure like Alice's, involving others.

When Wittgenstein published (with Russell's foreword) his Tractatus (1921), he believed his truth table method would serve as the basis for a fixed logic, and it is still taught in classrooms today.  But later, Wittgenstein abandoned the idea of a single, universal and univocal logic, and argued in his Philosophical Investigations (1953) that we practice a diverse variety of language games and forms of life related to each other by family resemblances, without any universal logic underlying them all. It could be said that Wittgenstein departed from Russell's dream of a single logic much as Alice left the Hatter's tea party after having her fill

This 'later Wittgenstein' argued that the meaning of a thing, word, statement, rule, or practice is not fixed by a single logic, set of rules or final authoritative interpretation, but rather is determined by use in context.  Just as a brake lever functions when it is connected to the rest of the train cabin, when we examine things as if they are universal, outside of particular situations, we become confused about how they work.  There are many ways that language functions, like the variety of tools found in a toolbox or controls found in a train cabin, and we can change the games we play and forms we live.  Knowing how to act is not based in conceptions of language, logic or mathematics, but in feeling familiar with situations that we do not need to fully understand.

This leads us to a problem found all over Wonderland.  Those who do things our way feel familiar to us, and those who do not, feel unfamiliar, odd and curious - words that Alice and Wittgenstein use frequently in their investigations and adventures.  Because meaning is not fully fixed by any single standard and things can be used and interpreted differently by ourselves and others in an unknown number of ways, we must determine for ourselves how much to agree or disagree with others in each interaction, deciding when to ignore, when to attack, when to negotiate, and when to surrender to ways that differ from our own.  Such a range of responses is illustrated by the ways the Mad Hatter, March Hare and Queen of Hearts treat Alice. Their example shows how some responses can result in absurdities and nonsense when we refuse to use the positions of others to examine our own for mistakes and misunderstandings.  Sometimes, we find ourselves having to continuously compromise, painfully at times.  Wittgenstein enjoyed quoting Schopenhauer's story of porcupines cuddling for warmth on a winter's day, advancing and retreating until they find a comfortable distance.

Like Russell, we can dream of a cast-iron logic that puts an end to contradictions and disputes between ourselves and others, and an objective science of human behavior that saves us from continuous suffering and insanity, like the original positivist dream of Auguste Comte.  And Russell like Comte, longed for a scientifically planned socialist society which would use logic and sociology to resolve human dilemmas with mathematical clarity, arriving at univocal solutions that silence the voice of doubt and reproach.  It would be lovely if there was a logic or science of human interaction which could solve all of the contradictions we suffer interacting with others, but human life would be hardly recognizable.  Interactions are often open-ended and confusing for us all, though we can become more familiar with them, more at home in the ways we continuously become confused.  Looking at Wonderland this way can lead us to a greater understanding of the ways that we understand and misunderstand each other, showing us the forms of life we share and the ways we have been playing these games. Is it the way Wittgenstein did too?

Recall the opening scene of Wonderland, in which Alice unknowingly falls into a dream and spies the White Rabbit, an animal that wears a watch and worries about being late.  This absurdity draws Alice into Wonderland.  In the Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein says that a dog can fear his master, but doubts that a dog can fear his master tomorrow,  as a dog has as little use for tomorrows as a rabbit does for a watch.  The White Rabbit worries he is breaking a rule, never be late, and is failing to conform to the wishes of the Queen and formal society.  Wittgenstein is said to have never read a word of Aristotle, but the classically trained Carroll had and was certainly aware that the White Rabbit is the absurd combination of an animal that reasons. That, of course, is how Aristotle defined humanity.  Like humanity, rules and games are both ideal and real, abstractions put into practice, which Wittgenstein argues can confuse us when we think of ideals and universals apart from the real and particular, as if they are simply ideal and entirely in the mind like Wonderland.

Following the White Rabbit, Alice finds a three-legged glass table, a golden key, and a small door that leads to a garden.  Carroll preferred playing outside with children to socializing in halls with colleagues.  Alice finds that when she is small enough to go through the door the key is out of reach. The key may stand for the Golden Rule, 'Treat others the way you would want to be treated', preached alike by Buddha, Confucius, Jesus, Muhammad and many others.  It can be easy to forget such a universal and transcultural rule in our daily interactions, as it often does not seem to work or fit.  As Ambrose Bierce said, Christianity is marvelously suited for the needs of one's neighbor.  Others do not treat us as we want to be treated, and so it seems fitting to forget the rules and return the favor.  Or could the key stand for logic itself, the ideal key for resolving contradiction and debate, graspable in the abstract but somewhat out of reach in actual interactions?

Whatever the truth of the matter, Alice is frustrated by the gap between herself and the key and begins to cry, then commands herself to stop.  We are told that Alice often pretends to be two people, gives herself advice but fails to follow it, and once punished herself for cheating at a game of croquet she was playing against herself.  There is a gap between the two Alices, one who focuses on herself and her mistakes, prescribing rules and morals, and one who focuses on other things, forgetting to follow orders.  This is much like Freud's superego and id, scolding parent and forgetful child, as well as the Red and White Queens in the land behind the Looking-Glass.

Alice thinks the door leads to paradise, like a child who dreams of the day she becomes an adult and her problems are over, but when Alice finally gets to the garden she finds a homicidal tyrant  presiding over a game of croquet played with animals that refuse to conform to the rules, much like the two sides of herself.  Alice does not make sense of this, nor does she solve the problems of Wonderland.  She never gets to use the golden key, as her tears sweep her out of the situation while she is tiny.  Similarly, she does not win the game in the Queen's garden, nor is she cleared of suspicion in the courtroom of the king, but rather grows large and angry, declares it all to be nonsense and ends the dream of Wonderland in anger.  Alice begins timid and forgetful like the White Rabbit, and even obeys his orders, but she ends bold and judgemental like the Queen of Hearts, and even dares to contradict her own execution order.

Just before she reaches the tea party, the Cheshire Cat tells Alice that the Hare and Hatter are both insane, as is everyone else.  He explains that a dog growls when angry and wags its tail when happy, while a cat growls when happy and wags his tail when angry.  Alice says she calls it purring, not growling, and the cat says she can call it whatever she likes.  Every position appears backwards to its opposite.  Like the hybrid White Rabbit, the Hare and Hatter are animal and humanity, the informal and formal gathered together.  Hats were proper attire in Carroll's day, and the Hatter, who plays the role of logician, is wearing a hat which he later admits is not his own but one he sells to others.  In Through the Looking Glass, the White Knight, whom many compare to Carroll, says he plucks butterflies from the air and sells them as mutton pies to feed himself, much as a logician or philosopher plucks ideas from thin air and sells them to students.
He said I look for butterflies That sleep among the wheat: I make them into mutton-pies, And sell them in the street.  I sell them unto men, he said, Who sail on stormy seas; And that's the way I get my bread - A trifle, if you please.
When Alice approaches the tea party, the Hare and Hatter see her and shout, 'No room! No room!'.  Are they saying Alice is not welcome, or could  they perhaps be saying that they are outdoors and thus there is 'no room'?  Alice interprets this as an insult, and sits down in retaliation.  The Hare offers her wine, but then admits there isn't any.  Alice says this is rude, and the Hare replies that it is rude to sit down without being invited.  The Hatter tells Alice that she needs a haircut, which Alice says is also rude.

The Hatter replies with a riddle, a riddle which goes unanswered, 'Why is a raven like a writing desk?'.  Why are we rude to others who are rude to us, treating them the very way that they treat us?  This remains an unsolved riddle of existence. Alice says, 'I believe I can guess that'.  The Hare replies, 'Do you mean that you think you can find out the answer to it?'.  Alice agrees, and the Hare replies, 'Then you should say what you mean'.  This is absurd, for as Wittgenstein argues we can say something without meaning it, but when we say something and mean it we mean it in saying it, such that the two are not separate, and we are not in a position to make rulings about the intentions of others apart from their words and actions.  Indeed, Alice protests, and says, 'at least I mean what I say ? that's the same thing, you know'.

Now the Hatter jumps in, playing logician, and misinterprets Alice in the way that Wittgenstein thought Russell misunderstood logic.  The Hatter objects that the two are not the same, and says that 'I see what I eat' is not the same thing as 'I eat what I see'.

One of the first lessons learned in formal logic is that If A then B is not the same thing as If B then A.  The Hatter gives an excellent example, as seeing each thing we eat is very different from eating each thing we see.  However, when Alice says, 'I mean what I say', she is saying she meant the thing she said, not that she always means what she says.  She is not making the universal claim that she is incapable of telling a lie, but making the particular claim that when she said she could guess the answer, she also meant it, and that this is the same thing as saying she meant it and also said it.  In logic and mathematics, A + B is the same thing as B + A, such that 'Alice said and meant it' is the same thing as saying 'Alice meant and said it'.

The Hatter's logic is flawless, but he misunderstands Alice's position.  Alice is an unwelcome intruder, and the Hatter is looking for her to make mistakes.  Is there a parallel between Russell and Wittgenstein here? Wittgenstein says we make 'the easy transition from some to all' when we project the particular way a thing is used or what it means to all possible cases.  What sometimes happens might always happen, but not necessarily.  Philosophers often interpret their own positions as general, allowing for exceptions, but interpret their opponents' positions as universal, contradicted by exceptions.  Rules and positions can be universal and absolute, but they need not be.  If I say that Sam is good, you do not know if I am saying he is perfect in every way, if he is good with some flaws, or that he is a terrible person and thus makes a good choice today as we need to hire a hitman.  Hans Sluga uses the example of a mother telling her daughter to stay in the house, trusting her daughter is wise and reasonable enough to know that when the house is on fire her ruling no longer applies.

In fact, madness was Russell's greatest nightmare. 

According to Wittgenstein, Russell misunderstood logic because he thought it is universal like arithmetic, rather than rooted in particular situations.  Is the idea of absolute certainty a foundation for sanity or is it delusion, the confusion of a dream with reality as Alice does her dream of Wonderland and the Hatter his interpretation of Alice?  Those at Cambridge who compared Russell and his circle to the Hatter's tea party likely thought so.  When Russell was invited to discuss works of literature and philosophy on the radio, he was passionate about many subjects, but only lukewarm when discussing Alice in Wonderland, possibly because he hated others thinking he was mad and resented the comparison of himself to the Hatter.

In fact, madness was Russell's greatest nightmare. When Russell was seventeen, he attempted to strangle a friend to death, fully intending to murder him, and barely managed to stop himself.  Only a few years later at Cambridge, as a fellow student of McTaggart and Moore, Russell learned his uncle Willy had suffered a nervous breakdown, strangled a vagrant and stabbed two men, killing one.  Willy Russell never recovered, and lived out his years hidden away in an asylum, lapsing into a catatonic dreamworld much like Wonderland.  Bertrand Russell became terrified that madness would suddenly take him, as he had only been a breath away from becoming his uncle, and he was haunted by the dueling images of being strangled by a madman or strangling someone as a madman.  One cannot ask for a more dysfunctional image of human interaction. For much of his life, Russell felt as if he was a fish in an aquarium, cut off from the warmth of others.

On the other hand, one of the happiest moments of Russell's youth was learning Euclidean geometry at the age of eleven from his older brother Frank.  Mathematics promised him the universal and eternal, as well as assertions that cannot be contradicted.  Unfortunately, he soon discovered that the work of Euclid rested on axioms, principles that remained unproven.  And so, for much of his life and career, Russell sought a solution to the extent that the American pragmatist and psychologist William James wrote to Russell: 
My dying words to you are, 'Say goodbye to mathematical logic if you wish to preserve your relations with concrete realities'.   
Significantly, in response, Russell wrote to a friend: 
I would much rather, of the two, preserve my relations with symbolic logic.   
This is Wonderland stuff, as is the fact that Russell worked with Whitehead for a decade to publish the Principia Mathematica in 1910, a book few can read that takes 362 pages to prove that 1 + 1 = 2.  And then, in 1911, the very next year, Wittgenstein showed up at Russell's rooms without warning...

Contact details: Eric Gerlach email: 

*This illustration appears in The Nursery Alice, a shortened version of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, published in 1890, featuring enlarged and coloured versions of the original drawings by John Tenniel.

Thursday, 5 March 2015

Quantum Mechanics and New Perspectives on the Nature of Life (2015)

From The Philosopher, Volume CIII No. 1, 2015

Perspectives and Speculations

Lipid bilayer of the cell membrane
(Image derived from a computer model created by Wellcome images)


By Celso de Araujo Duarte

Life is a characteristic of certain things in the world around us that distinguishes them from the rest by certain features. Things such as reproduction, mobility, metabolism, growth, ability to respond to external stimulus and adaptability to the environment are often mentioned. From the earliest times, people have attributed life to animals and plants, in recognition that these have key characteristics which are absent on inert matter.

Materialist currents of thought state that life is essentially an indirect, apparent result of a complex arrangement of matter. Empedocles believed that anything in the universe is composed by a combination of the four fundamental elements - water, air, fire, earth – and living matter was composed of a specific mixture of these elements, yet Democritus thought that the essence of life resides in the soul, the psyche. During the Middle Ages, within the Western tradition, under the aegis of the Christianity, a metaphysical ingredient, the soul, became the essential condition for life.

The materialist viewpoint reemerged with Descartes, who believed the man and the animals as machines. This conception was somewhat supported by the discovery of the cell, the basic unit of life that suggested a mechanistic viewpoint.

Daniel Koshland, a biochemist based at the University of California, Berkeley, speculates about the definition of life on an essay, based on a scientific debate (in a paper entititled 'The Seven Pillars of Life. Essays on Science and Society', published in the Journal Science 295: 2215-2216). The first questions were: 'Is an enzyme alive? Is a virus alive? Is a cell alive?' Koshland concluded that, 'although everyone knows what life is there is no simple definition of life', and started a sketch of a definition: 'a living organism is an organized unit, which can carry out metabolic reactions, defend itself against injury, respond to stimuli, and has the capacity to be at least a partner in reproduction'. Still unsatisfied, he has established the pillars of life in seven words:
However, Neil Greenspan, pathologist at Case Western University, Cleveland, addressing the issue of whether or not viruses are alive, doubts if anyone knows what life is: the problem is an unsolved issue.

Our experience of nature directs us to draw out the meaning of things in subjective ways. This is not enough and instead we are attracted by the possibility of making definitions. However, these may lead us to arrive only at circular concepts, since a definition relates concepts that are already known by us, and ultimately these concepts remain essentially subjective. A failure of most definitions of life is that they define life by the characteristics of living beings. They fail to define exactly what life is.

The Emergence of Phylogeny

Walking gently through the history, we arrive to the discovery of microscopic life, and the birth of microbiology. Evidence from microbiology suggests that all organisms on Earth are genetically related, and the genealogical relationships of living things can be represented by a vast evolutionary tree: the Tree of Life. The Tree of Life then represents the phylogeny of organisms - the history of organisms as they change through time.

Specifically, with microbiology, we have the discovery of new forms of living bodies - viruses, which differ from all other living beings by the absence of cells. In addition, viruses have an uncertain phylogeny: they are an emergent class of life that starts from a common denominator, which also generated other forms of life. At the same time, viruses are themselves the precursors of other forms of life.

Controversy about the classification of viruses as living or not would not arise were it not for the discovery that they are mere aggregates of a few molecules. Yet the finding that some isolated molecules are able to replicate is certainly a decisive argument in favor of their inclusion. At the same time, it is generally accepted that a simple molecule is not alive, and a virus is scarcely any more evolved than this.

During the Twentieth century it was discovered that some diseases were caused by this kind of particles - the viruses - with a behavior like that of bacteria, albeit much smaller. Being clearly biological and with their ability to spread among victims causing biological effects, it was supposed that viruses would be the simplest form of life. However, the first crystallisation of tobacco mosaic viruses, by Wendell Stanley and fellow collaborators, led them to believe that these entities were better understood as a biochemical complex. Viruses were relegated to the class of mere inert chemical compounds. The bottom line was that viruses do not have systems for metabolic functions - the biochemical activity of life. (See perhaps, for example, the paper Are viruses alive? by L. P. Villarreal, in Scientific American.)

We arrive to the central point of the present work: to dare some considerations about the question about what is alive, in the spirit of the search for a truly generalized conception. Let us consider first what we may say about viruses being or not living, taking the law of evolution to provide a broad viewpoint? Let us appeal to the law of evolution, and work backwards from animals to the most primitive living things. And where do we arrive? Firstly, to unicellular beings; after, even simpler, as the viruses. Would we have then arrived at the last stage of life, the smallest unit of life?

The brute, inorganic matter, also shows a gradation of complexity; from complex macroscopic aggregates of molecules to small aggregates, a few atoms, and finally (or is it?) the elementary particles. We are inclined to guess that life, linked to the matter, exists on everything at different degrees of complexity, even on single molecules, atoms, elementary particles.

The existence of some elementary particles is defined by a mean lifetime, after which they decay into another. Would not it be similar to a cellular mitosis or meiosis? Elementary particles may also generate or absorb other, as an example the photon. The absorption and emission of photons may be considered like the phagocytosis and the exocytosis – energy (food) intake and excretion - despite without a metabolism. From this viewpoint, life is a very broad phenomenon. It is associated with matter and suffers a process of evolution, conditioned to cross along successive stages with increased complexity. If the life of an elementary particle is simple, it becomes more complex as part of the aggregation that forms the atom, and, in sequence, within the molecule, within the group of molecules; before then, we arrive at plants, animals and the human being.

From this viewpoint, life is a very broad phenomenon. It is associated to matter and suffers a process of evolution, conditioned to cross along successive stages, with increased complexity . . .

Now quantum mechanics states that elementary particles have a dualistic nature: that they can take on either the characteristics of particles or of waves. How could we conceive life on a class of beings whose constitution is not well defined, ambiguous, dual? Firstly, only our paradigmatic conceptions would prohibit us to accept life under such conditions - at least as a hypothesis. Secondly, this dual nature is yet present on all the living beings at the quantum level of their subatomic constituents. Finally, quantum mechanics gives us a model for the reality, not the real panorama of reality. Following Bohr, another creator of quantum mechanics:
There is no quantum world. There is only an abstract physical description. It is wrong to think that the task of physics is to find out how nature is. Physics concerns what we can say about nature..., Every sentence I utter must be understood not as an affirmation, but as a question.

(Niels Bohr, as quoted in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Vol. 19, No. 7, September 1963).
Of course, we could argue that the result of the decay of an elementary particle is not a similar particle, and this does not occur with living beings: the decay of a neutron into a proton, an electron and a neutrino should have equivalents as an elephant giving birth to a giraffe, a duck and a sparrow. However, this concern reveals our attachment to the paradigm that living organisms can only generate similar ones. By the way, in termites, ants and bees, there is a differentiation among workers, soldiers, etc. A physicist would argue: however, the new generations consist of the beings of the same species. Making the parallel, protons and neutrons are baryons, electrons and neutrinos are leptons. The parallel is flawed. Again, this thinking reveals an attachment to paradigms (note that both classifications of living species and elementary particles are human inventions - albeit very founded and consistent in many aspects).

Now consider the probabilistic (quantum) character of the physical magnitudes associated to the elementary particles. This probabilism reflects a statistical law that previews tendencies. The behavior of a given single particle follows one of the previewed possibilities. The present status of quantum mechanics does not go beyond this limit. Would not be this an open door to interpret that each particle follows its own trajectory on a dynamical space of phases - and so that this could be interpreted as free will that sign individuality of the particle? This would break the deterministic principle in nature in the essence of matter (yet also broken by the quantum mechanics itself), and if we prefer, this indeterminacy can be seen as a characteristic of life at the subatomic scale.

Clinamen is the Latin name given by Lucretius to the unpredictable deviation of atoms, in the atomistic doctrine of Epicurus. According to Lucretius, this deviation occurs at no time or place fixed:
When atoms move straight down through the void by their own weight, they deflect a bit in space at a quite uncertain time and in uncertain places, just enough that you could say that their motion has changed. But if they were not in the habit of swerving, they would all fall straight down through the depths of the void, like drops of rain, and no collision would occur, nor would any blow be produced among the atoms. In that case, nature would never have produced anything.

('The Atomic Swerve' from De Rerum Natura by Lucretius)
It is this indeterminacy that, according to him, provides the free will that living things have throughout the world. Summarising then, the elementary particles:
• exchange energy with the environment;
• follow a law of minimization of energy causing an increase of entropy on the surrounding medium;
• have a characteristic average lifetime, defined by spontaneous decay (or by annihilation with another particle);
• generate other particles.
Yet are not these properties similar to that of living beings? Why should we think that the life scale finishes at (or before) viruses? We could speculate about what we would find continuing backwards on the scale of life, in size and complexity. Would we reach to a limit? Moreover, what would we find along the opposite direction of increasing complexity?

Finally, in this last paragraph I employed the word complexity. Yet perhaps, this word is not quite adequate to describe the real panorama. A bacterium seems to be nothing compared to the complexity of a horse; however, an endless compendium could be written about a single bacterium. And then, the simplicity of a bacterium is apparent. The true picture is that we have different levels or planes of complexity, whose mutual comparison enables us to set up a criterion of hierarchy of complexity (maybe this hierarchy is an illusion, a mere invention of the man - made to meet a better comprehension): each level has its own inherent complexity.

From this perspective, we would see a holographic scale of complexity in life. The complexity of the horse, made of cells; that of the cells made of organelles - specialised subunit within a cell that have specific functions; and on then to molecules, atoms, et cetera. It is in exactly the same way that the bacterium is complex since it too is made of organelles, and these by molecules, and all their ever-diminishing elements. And thus, eventually we arrive at an infinite scale of planes of complexity within each and every living being.

Contact details: Dr. Celso de Araujo Duarte is Professor of the Dept. of Physics, Federal University of Paraná, Brazil


Wednesday, 4 March 2015

C. E. M. Joad: Philosophical Treasure – or Third-Class Socrates? (2015)

From The Philosopher, Volume CIII No. 1, 2015

Perspectives and Speculations

Caricature of  Joad, by Griff  (Courier Magazine in 1945)


By Richard Symonds

It is not difficult to make a list - from Ayer to Popper to Russell and Moore - of academic philosophers who have shaped 20th century British philosophy. However, one name that is unlikely to be on many people’s lists is that of C. E. M. Joad (1891-1953).

Yet in his time, Cyril Edwin Mitchinson Joad was the best-known philosopher in Britain, renowned for his habit of carefully deconstructing questions on the BBC’s wartime radio program, the Brains Trust. His Socratic habit of prefacing responses with the words: ‘It all depends what you mean by ....’ became a catch-phrase. As a later UK populariser of philosophy, Bryan Magee later acknowledged, this was likely ‘the first time most of the population had heard such routine clarification carried out in a businesslike and unpedantic way’.

Clarifying concepts is what philosophy has always been about, and certainly what 20th century British philosophy was preoccupied with. Yet, in its obituary for Joad,  on April 10 1953,  The Times described him as a ‘civil servant, university teacher, controversialist and entertainer’ - but not a philosopher. An entertainer! To underline the point, The Times continued: ‘A star performer as a popular educator...’ but a man who ‘had no original contribution to make as a philosopher’.

In this article, I hope to make the case for this once-famous, but now almost-forgotten philosopher, to be given his due place in English philosophy and culture. He needs to be remembered as a thinker who shaped public discussion of critical issues, and opened up philosophy to a wider audience. As Geoffrey Thomas said in his short biography of Joad, this was a man ‘who believed that philosophy should not be a mere academic speciality, but a power in everyday life’.

I have no doubt that the author of that Times obituary was mistaken. The account conjures up an image of an  ill-remembered man - if remembered at all – who nonetheless ‘quickened the sluggish mind of the nation’ as the Evening Standard put it more generously the same year. Sixty or so years on, let history speak. C. E.. M.  Joad, ‘the Professor' of the BBC's Brains Trust, popularised philosophy for millions, encouraged people think more clearly, and contributed to public morale during the darkest years of the Second World War. I hope to capture something of Joad’s vitality, fallibility, wit and crystal-clear thinking. These are qualities that are needed more than ever for humanity’s survival in the 21st century.

Joad wrote over 100 books and a similar number of academic papers, as well as countless newspaper and magazine articles. He was Head of the Philosophy Department (originally Philosophy and Psychology) at Birkbeck College, part of the University of London, for 23 years from its inception in 1930 until his death at his Hampstead home, aged just 61. He was never made a Professor, a point his detractors made much of, but was still the first to put the Birkbeck 'on the map' as a philosophy department.

Joad says that the philosopher: ‘... looks for a clue to guide him through the labyrinth, for a system wherewith to classify, or a purpose in terms of which to make meaningful. Has the universe, for example, any design, or is it merely a fortuitous concourse of atoms? Is mind a fundamental feature of the universe, in terms of which we are ultimately to interpret the rest, or is it a mere accident, an eddy in the primeval slime, doomed one day to finish its pointless journey with as little noise and significance as it began it? Are good and evil real and ultimate principles existing independently of men, or are they merely the names we give to the things of which we happen to approve and to disapprove?’

Joad was gifted, but fallible – and thus vulnerable. His private life, especially with women, I would tactfully describe as ‘varied, colourful and not without complication'. His public life, especially with his celebrity 'Brains Trust' status, brought a high level of personal hubris, and accompanying nemesis, in 1948. This was his 'annus horribilis', the year in which his fame plummeted after an all-too-public 'scandal' regarding train ticket non-payments.

But let’s first look at Joad’s work and ideas. The early Joad is a political philosopher and pacifist. The background is World War I. In 1919, we find Joad - a staunch, young, Oxford-educated pacifist - editing The Diary of a Dead Officer (Pelican Press), a book about his friend, and war poet, Arthur Graeme West who had been killed by a sniper's bullet in April 1917.

Joad, like George Bernard Shaw, was fully involved in the Fabian Society, and seems to have tried to model himself on the great writer. By 1933, still as a socialist philosopher and pacifist, he becomes President of the Federation of Progressive Societies and Individuals, the group based on the visionary ideas of H. G. Wells - which later 'morphed' into the Socialist League. This was the year of the famous (and infamous) Oxford Union Debate on the motion:
‘That under no circumstances will we fight for King and Country’.
Joad took part in it, and won. When graduate members, led by Winston Churchill's son Randolph, tried to expunge the 275 to 153 vote from the official record, they were defeated 750 to 138.

Fifteen years later, in Volume 1 of his History of World War Two ('The Gathering Storm'), Winston Churchill cited this as one reason why Hitler believed this country would never go to war : ‘It was easy to laugh off such an episode in England, but in Germany, in Russia, in Italy, in Japan, the idea of a decadent and degenerate Britain took deep root, and swayed many calculations’. Whether this view is fair to history – or Joad – or mere sour grapes, the reader must judge.

The ‘Middle Joad’ years see the emergence of the Brains Trust philosopher and celebrity. In 1941 (January 1), Joad became one of three panelists in an experimental BBC idea to boost morale for the blitz-ridden and war-weary. The Brains Trust exceeded all expectations. As it 'took off' it also made Joad the most recognised and renowned philosopher during the war, it seems much to Bertrand Russell's chagrin, who mocked Joad publicly and professionally at every opportunity. Nonetheless, the public were amused and beguiled by Joad and his down-to-earth style revealed in comments such as:
There is no reason, at least I know of none, why the universe should necessarily be intelligible to the mind of a Twentieth-century human being, and I...remind him how late a comer he is upon the cosmic scene, and how recently he has begun to think...
And that:
If we put the past of life at one hundred years, then the past human life works out at about a month, and of human civilisation (giving the most generous interpretation to the term ‘civilisation’) at about one-and-three-quarter hours. On the same time-scale, the future of ‘civilisation’ - that is to say, the, future during which it may be supposed that man will continue to think - is about one hundred thousand years.
In fact, Joad frequently struck a Socratic posture, writing at one point:
In philosophy, then, as in daily life, cocksureness is a function of ignorance, and dunces step in where sages fear to tread. The wise man is he who realises his limitations.
However, although a media success, Joad’s moral philosophy no longer chimed with the times - nor did his socialist politics, particularly his enthusiastic advocacy of the Soviet Union after a visit there.
There were no rich and in the towns no poor; all citizens were living on incomes ranging from about, £100 to £200 a year. What is more, the Bolsheviks had succeeded in establishing a society in which the possession of money had been abolished as a criterion of social value. The effects were far-reaching, and, so far as I could see, entirely beneficial. The snobbery of wealth, which is so important a factor in the social life of Anglo-Saxon communities, was absent. There was no ostentation and no display, and the contemporary fat man, complete with fur coat, white waistcoat, champagne and cigars, was missing. It was only when one returned to England that one realized by contrast the vulgarity of wealth... The Russians, admittedly, are poor and live badly, but the sting is removed from poverty if it is not outraged by the continual spectacle of others' wealth. I cannot believe that complete equality of income would not produce similar effects here, and, if snobbery and vulgarity were eliminated from English society, the gain would be incalculable.

To an age governed by the stomach-and-pocket view of life and accustomed to demand of every activity proffered for its approval that it shall deliver the goods, understanding seems no doubt an inadequate object of pursuit. Yet something is, it is obvious, grievously wrong with our civilization, and it is high time we set about the business of trying to understand what it is. Science has won for us powers fit for the gods, yet we bring to their use the mentality of schoolboys or savages.

The Plight of Civilization (1941)
He fought against the prevailing orthodoxies of secular materialism and moral relativism - with little visible success.  When Joad draws on the ‘facts’ of Jesus Christ’s divinity and the existence of miracles to support some of his arguments, he did so in a way that had not been acceptable to philosophy for many centuries.

Joad's moral intuitionism is perhaps his real legacy. Could this have been a prescient philosophy on his part, rather than old-fashioned? Did he understand that humanity was coming unhinged?  Did he understand that he needed to rescue the 'common man'?  Did he pass the baton too soon?  If he is to be rehabilitated, one should understand what for, in our own day.

This aspect of  his work centred on a values-based philosophy, almost a new metaphysics. As a moral realist, Joad believed that the ultimate values of truth, beauty and goodness were objective, absolute and independent of the mind (we discover them). This belief was diametrically opposed to the moral relativists, who believed such values were subjective, relative and dependent on the mind (we create them).

He also believed these three values were not only immanent within the mind, but also transcendent of it - and this primary idea later developed into what I would dub a theory about the 'Transcendence-Immanence Theory of the Soul’
This is the view that values are objective not subjective, and can reduce themselves to just three: Truth, Goodness and Beauty (Joad’s capitalisation.).

Joad writes:
These three values are 'objective' in the sense that they are found by the human mind - found as 'given' in things - and not projected into things or contributed to them by our own minds, and 'ultimate', in the sense that whatever we value can be shown to be valued because of the relation of the thing valued to some one or other of the three values. Thus, while other things are valued as means to one or other of these three, they are valued as ends in themselves.
Moreover, these values are not just arbitrary, pieces of cosmic furniture lying about, as it were, in the universe without explanation, coherence or connection, but are revelations of a unity that underlies them; are, in fact, the ways in which God reveals Himself to man. Hence, those human activities which consist in, or which arise out of, the pursuit of Truth, the cultivation of moral goodness, or the creation and enjoyment of Beauty, are such that we cannot help but value and revere them.

What we call the Values - and it is under this term that [Plato's] Forms may, I think, be most appropriately referred to in respect of their most outstanding manifestations, as Truth, Goodness and Beauty - are the modes of God's revelation of His Nature to man.
If the early Joad was very much an atheist, and the middle Joad avoided the subject, in his ‘Late’ period he changed to a “religious values-based philosophy”.  This Joad takes Plato's Forms and re-formulates them as Values - or Divine Attributes, which he says are transcendent realities underlying, yet manifesting themselves, in the familiar, natural world.

Joad writes  that the universe is to be conceived of as two orders of reality:
... the natural order, consisting of people and things moving about in space and enduring in time, and a supernatural order neither in space nor in time, which consists of a Creative Person or Trinity of Persons from which the natural order derives its meaning, and in terms of which it receives its explanation.
This supernatural order, he continues, is fully real ‘in some sense in which the natural order is less than real; it is also perfect in a sense in which the natural order is morally imperfect’. The eternal reality which is the supernatural order is related to the natural order. ‘The nature of the relationship depends at least in part upon the living human souls which are denizens of the natural order. It is of great importance - at least to them - to ensure that the relation is a right one.’

The supernatural order  cannot be investigated using the same methods as those that are effective in the natural sphere. Knowledge  instead must be vouchsafed by divine revelation, or sought by submission to special discipline, or achieved by obedience to a revealed law. Joad thinks that the supernatural order may, from time to time, manifest itself in natural phenomena, but these manifestations are not predictable far less controllable.
Divine revelation, that is, such information as is vouchsafed to us in regard to the supernatural order, is consistent with reason and may, indeed, find support from the use of reason, but the knowledge which it conveys cannot be attained by the operations of reason alone.
This part of Joad’s thesis is reminiscent of Kierkegaard, who also speaks of the need for a ‘leap of faith’ to bridge the gap left by reason. Joad again:
Thus, the believer in Christianity holds that he is possessed, or can be possessed of, a source of knowledge other than and distinct from that attainable by scientific explanation. He maintains, therefore, that there are limits beyond which scientific knowledge can never hope to pass...
These ideas were never taken seriously by his professional peers. In reviewing Joad's book, Matter, Life and Value (1929) in the late 1960s, John Passmore wrote:
Within a seam-bursting eclecticism, Russell, Bergson and Plato had somehow all to make room for themselves as the representatives - respectively - of Matter, Life and Value. The result was a conglomeration of considerable popular appeal, but little philosophical consequence.
And Bryan Magee's assessment of  Cyril Joad could scarcely be harsher:
He was an engaging but essentially fraudulent character. His popular books on philosophy thick-skinnedly recycled Russell’s work without acknowledgement; asked once to write a recommendation of a book by Joad, Russell replied : ‘Modesty forbids’.

Confessions of a Philosopher, by Bryan Magee - 1997
However, at the time,  J.B. Coates had said enthusiastically of Joad in his book, Ten Modern Prophets (1944) that:
He possesses...a capacity for seeing modern issues from the standpoint of the universal. It is no mean purpose to seek to make the average citizen think out his problems in terms of Truth, Beauty and Goodness; but that is the purpose which Joad has sought to achieve with no little success, and in so doing, has made the British listener familiar with the thoughts of Plato, Socrates and Aristotle. It is a misfortune that the BBC, with characteristic timidity in the intellectual field, has restricted the play of Joad's relatively unimportant issues.
‘The 1945 Revolution’ saw Joad attempting to be taken seriously as a Labour politician. It was not to be. Joad was rejected by North Aberdeen Labour Party but then adopted as prospective candidate by South Aberdeen, but turned it down as he was hoping - according to Hugh Gaitskell - to secure Romford. Was this a foretaste of the perils of hubris?

In 1947, Harold Nicolson, husband of Vita Sackville-West (and friend of Cyril), wrote in his Diary - May 9th:
‘Viti has had Cyril Joad to luncheon. He poured out to her his unhappiness and disappointments. He has lost his faith in agnosticism, and has not found a compensating faith in God. He has lost his faith in Socialism, and not found any faith to supplement it. Underneath, I suppose, he must feel that he is in a false position. He has acquired notoriety instead of fame. He knows he is a popular, and as such a slightly comic, figure. He wishes he had acquired either the cloistered dignity of a scholar and philosopher, or the arena victories of the politician. He has no domestic background. He has quarreled with his son; his daughters have married; his wife has left him. He is famous and alone.’
And so we arrive at 1948 - the annus horribilis .- in which Joad was convicted of travelling on a Waterloo to Exeter train - a considerable distance occasioning a considerable fare - without a valid ticket. His fall from grace was extremely rapid. He was dismissed by the BBC. His readers deserted him. His professional colleagues shunned him. The dream of a Birkbeck Professorship evaporated. Adverse comments by respected figures like Winston Churchill and Bertrand Russell mocked him again :
Joad has lost his ticket and found God.
He became ill. As his good friend, John Guest, sadly summed up those days, for BBC's 'Radio Lives' in 1993: ‘Poor Joad’.

Even so, in 1950, Joad was taking part in, and winning again – by 224 to 179 votes - another provocative Oxford Union Debate, this time on the motion: ‘That this House regrets the influence exercised by the US, as the dominant power among the democratic nations’.

The debate saw former pacifist Joad and Randolph Churchill square-off again: ‘Money is the sole American standard of value’, said Cyril. ‘The nations are heading for hell, and it is America which is leading us there...[American influence] corrupts, infects and pollutes whatever it touches’. And: ‘What a genius the Americans have for coming into a war late, on the winning side’. Angry shouts of 'Shame' greeted Joad's remark.

Other shouts, however, drowned out Randolph - husband of American heiress Pamela Harriman - when he proclaimed in mocking tones: ‘Back the 'Professor' comes after seventeen years with his rotten advice, trying to lure yet another generation along the wrong path’. The President of the Students Union, Robin Day, (himself later to become famous on BBC's Question Time, very much the successor to the Brains Trust), rang the bell for silence, but Winston's son again stood up and bellowed:
It may be just a joke for the 'Professor', this Third-Class Socrates, but he is corrupting, infecting and polluting the good relations between Britain and the US.
Here indeed was a cruel jibe by Churchill - designed to hurt, because ‘Third-Class’ alluded to the 1948 train ticket incident. However, by using the name ‘Socrates’ he unintentionally paid Joad the highest of all compliments for a philosopher.

In 1952, Joad wrote what would be his 'swansong' - The Recovery of Belief - A Restatement of Christian Philosophy. In this, he developed extensively, and with some originality, a religious values-based philosophy and a Theory of the Soul. The year also saw him produce a short book for his philosophy students, which offers in conclusion:
Plato's Theory of Ideas... constitutes the nearest approach that philosophers, by the unaided light of their own reason, have made to the Christian conception of what the world is like which, to my mind, is the true one.
And, early in 1953, when Joad knew he was dying from cancer, he wrote Folly Farm - posthumously published in 1954. It is a bitter and even cantankerous account. The celebrated poet laureate, John Betjeman, wrote the Foreword, but if the intention was good, the effect is depressing.

This book was written during the final stages of Cyril Joad's painful illness. He planned it after he knew that he had only a few months to live, and that the increasing pain from which he was suffering could not be alleviated. He wrote it to keep his mind active and to drive off self-pity - the second a needless precaution, for he was never prone to it. It concerns things about which he felt very strongly - the preservation of the country, the depredation of it by service departments, his own farming in Sussex, good cooking and good wine, as well as many other general topics which he liked to discuss.

In the book, the autobiographical hero, ‘Mr. Longpast’ has:
...permitted himself the growth and indulgence of prejudices to such an extent that, having spent most of his life as an orthodox left-wing Socialist, he was now bidding fair to qualify for the traditional role of the rustic British eccentric.

... Among his prejudices was a hatred of machines of all sorts, especially cars and planes; a fear of America and all things American; a dislike of women (he was too old, he said, to need these for functional purposes, and he failed to see on what other ground a reasonable man could wish to cultivate their company); an abounding contempt for British food and those who provided it; a total incomprehension of contemporary music and art; and a general dislike of any development in the sphere of politics, literature or the British way of life that had occurred since the early 'twenties.

... Though - thanks to his early Socialist training, he had the grace not to say that the world was going to the dogs - that indubitably was his opinion.
‘Folly Farm’ was, in fact, an amalgam of the two Sussex farms he loved - South Stoke Farm, in a beautiful hamlet nestled deep in the South Downs near Arundel Castle, and Meadow Hills, Stedham - also in the South Downs in the Rother Valley. In this local area, Joad is not forgotten. His 50th Anniversary in 2003 was celebrated at South Stoke, while his 60th Anniversary in 2013 was celebrated at Stedham. Indeed, plans are underway for C. E.. M.  Joad's 70th Anniversary in 2023.


The question of whether soul’s are individual and reflect individual personalities has been much debated over the centuries. Aristotle's view was that the soul is not immortal at all, but only the intellect – which he called nous – is. This view caused theological problems for the later Christian philosophers. Exploring the issue, the Islamic philosopher, Averroes warns that the intellect is not the property of individuals but rather transcends them. This view, of course, undercut both the Islamic and the Christian teachings about individual responsibility and chances of redemption and was considered deeply heretical. Joad says:
... suppose that to think of the personality as resulting from the concurrence of a number of parts was misleading from the first. Suppose that the personality is logically prior, and that the parts derive from it, in the sense that it is in the parts that it expresses itself and finds its embodiment...

Christianity regards the whole, which I have been calling the personality, as an immortal soul which will survive the break-up of the body, even if it did not precede its formation....

If this is true, there is a sense in which the personality is more than its expressions both in the body and in the psyche, so that besides being immanent, it is also transcendent..., mind, spirit and value cannot be adequately conceived in material terms as off-shoots of, or emanations from, matter; secondly, that they are non-spatial; thirdly, that on both counts, science is disabled from giving an adequate account of them...

There is... an element, or factor, in the mind - or, as I should in this connection prefer to call it, the soul - which is timeless...

Now, I do not wish to suggest that it is easy to see how a timeless mind (or soul) can be aware of events which have not yet occurred; I content myself with pointing out that such a possibility is no harder to envisage than its awareness of, and apparent participation in, events which are occurring in what is called the present.

E-mail: Richard Symonds

Richard Symonds is a Founder Member of the Joad Society and is co-writing a book with Geoffrey Thomas on Joad called The People's Philosopher. Please contact him for details on the planned local events celebrating Joad's anniversary.

Related:  Robert Hill on Joad's place in the Philosophical Society's history
Joad's 1931 paper for the Journal on Modern Science and Religion