Learning Center
Plans & pricing Sign in
Sign Out
Get this document free

Mind and Spirit


									                              What is Philosophy Chapter 7
                                 by Richard Thompson

                                       Mind And Spirit
                            (edited on Wednesday, 2nd June 2010)

      So far I’ve concentrated on philosophers’ thoughts about the nature of the world and
our knowledge of it. There are other matters that have interested philosophers greatly, and
have for many philosophers been their primary interests. God, the soul, the nature of mind,
goodness, justice, are the subjects that first come to mind when many people think of
Philosophy. However philosophers haven’t usually presented morality or theology in
isolation but have tried to show their place in a more general theory of the way things are.
Theories of the nature of reality, and how we come to know whatever we do know about
reality, underpin other philosophical theories; in that sense a philosopher’s views on
knowledge and reality are fundamental, even if he doesn’t spend much time discussing
them. Logic, knowledge, meaning and reality are an essential basis for any discussion of
Philosophy, but now we’ve considered those we are equipped to consider speculative
Philosophy - Religion, Mind, Ethics and Politics. I discuss the first two in this chapter

     Ancient Greek Cosmology and Cosmogony
     Beliefs about the structure of the universe and stories about its origin go back to
prehistory. The Jewish creation story is told in the Book of Genesis. A Babylonian poem
the Enuma elish dating from the reign of Nebuchadrezzar I (1124-03 BC), tells of the god
Marduk who conquered the monster of primeval chaos, Tiamat, and created all living
things. The Egyptians also had their creation stories, as did the Greeks.

     In the philosophical tradition theories were constructed to provide explanations, so
I’m not primarily concerned with the original myths, but with the part played by the stories
of gods once those stories were incorporated in theoretical frameworks.

      The very early Greek theorists, the Ionians, proposed naturalistic accounts of the
origins and workings of the cosmos that did not appeal to any divine agency.
      Thales thought that all was originally water, solids being formed from water by some
process similar to the silting up of a river. He thought the earth was a flat disk floating on
water. There is water above the earth as well as below it, which explains rain. The
heavenly bodies are luminous because they are made of vapour that is incandescent with

      Anaximander suggested that matter is composed of four elements, earth, water,
mist and fire, mixed in various proportions. They originally lay in order of density, with
earth at the centre, then water, than mist and finally fire on the outside. That arrangement
was unstable because the elements interacted. Fire evaporated some of the water,
exposing dry land. The mist produced by evaporating the water built up a high pressure
that broke down the boundaries between the layers. Eventually fire was re-arranged into
circular wheels enclosed in mist. What we see as heavenly bodies are actually the fire
shining through holes in this tyre of mist. Animals were produced by the action of sunlight
on substances in sea water. Fish appeared first and when land eventually appeared some
sea creatures moved to the land. The land animals we know are their descendants.

    Anaximenes thought it was unnecessarily complicated to have four separate
elements, and proposed that there were rather four different states of one element, which
he considered to be mist. He believed that mist could exist in various states of

                                          Page 1
                                  What is Philosophy Chapter 7
                                     by Richard Thompson

compression, corresponding to earth, water, mist and fire. The world was formed by
condensation from a cloud of rotating mist.

       Pythagoras seems to have been the first notable systematic thinker to combine the
ancient traditions of creator gods with the newer project of constructing theoretical
explanations. He thought reality was fundamentally numerical. The number 1 represented
a point, 2 a line, 3 a surface and 4 a solid, so that 10 = 1 + 2+ 3 + 4 was a specially
important number. The cosmos is a living creature that grew from a seed of fire. Growth
proceeded from the centre outwards. The cosmos is eternal and divine. Heavenly bodies
are perfect spheres and move in perfect circles. There is a mass of fire at the centre of the
universe; earth and the planets all revolve around that fire. The dimensions of their orbits
correspond to the notes in the musical scale. Animals are mortal but humans contain a
soul which is a fragment of the divine soul. Eventually human souls will be re-united with
the divine soul, but only after a period during which they animate in turn a series of
humans, so Pythagoras believed in re-incarnation. The Pythagorean number based
cosmology assumed that any number that was not a whole number could be expressed as
the ratio of two whole numbers. It was then proved that some numbers, known as
‘irrational’, such as 2, cannot be expressed as a ratio of two whole numbers. That
undermined Pythagoreanism, though some Pythagorean beliefs were preserved by being
incorporated in Platonism.

      The Greek atomists, Leucippus and Democritus, returned to the naturalist tradition
begun by the Ionians. They taught that an infinitely many indestructible indivisible
impenetrable atoms exist in an otherwise empty infinite void. They believed the universe to
be enclosed in a spherical shell of interlocking atoms. That shell is a sort of bubble in the
void. There might be other bubbles in the void enclosing other universes. Originally atoms
moved randomly, each following its own path, but collisions brought groups of similar
atoms together so they coalesced to form larger bodies. Fire and the human soul are both
composed of atoms that move too fast to lock together. After death both the atoms
composing the body and those composing the soul disperse, so neither body nor soul

      Plato was strongly influenced by Pythagoras and completely rejected naturalism.
The principal source of Plato’s account of the structure and origin of the universe is the
Timaeus, which also contains the first recorded account of the story of Atlantis. The
following is an abbreviated quotation, with some omissions, shown by dots ... and some
passages paraphrased by me; the paraphrases are enclosed in square brackets. I have
also interpolated comments, those I have enclosed in curly brackets.
          “begin by distinguishing... that which always is and never becomes from that which is always
       becoming but never is. The one is apprehensible by intelligence with the aid of reasoning, being
       eternally the same, the other is the object of opinion and irrational sensation, coming to be and
       ceasing to be, but never fully real. In addition, everything that becomes or changes must do so
       owing to some cause; for nothing can come to be without a cause. Whenever, therefore, the maker
       of anything keeps his eye on the eternally unchanging and uses it as his pattern for the form and
       function of his product the result must be good; whenever he looks to something that has come to be
       and uses a model that has come to be, the result is not good.
          [the cosmos] has come into being; for it is visible, tangible, and corporeal, and therefore
       perceptible by the senses, and,.... what comes into being or changes must do so... owing to some
          [The cosmos is modelled on the eternal so there is just one cosmos] for that which comprises all
       intelligible beings cannot have a double... In order therefore that our universe should resemble the
       perfect living creature in being unique, the maker did not make two universes or an infinite number,

                                               Page 2
                                   What is Philosophy Chapter 7
                                      by Richard Thompson
       but our universe was... his only creation.
          Now anything that has come to be must be corporeal, visible, and tangible: but nothing can be
       visible without fire, nor tangible without solidity, and nothing can be solid without earth. So god,
       when he began to put together the body of the universe, made it of fire and earth. But it is not
       possible to combine two things properly without a third to act as a bond to hold them together. {the
       start of an infinite regress?} And the best bond is one that effects the closest unity between itself and
       the terms it is combining; and this is best done by a continued geometrical proportion. {notice the
       appeal to Pythagorean numerology here} (Timaeus pages 40-43 in the Penguin Classics edition)

      Plato thought that the creation used up the whole of each of the four elements, so
that the cosmos should be ‘as complete a living thing as possible’. It’s shape was spherical
for that shape contains all others within itself (I suppose he meant that the each of the five
regular polyhedra can be inscribed in a sphere - more echoes of Pythagoras). Its only form
of motion was uniform rotation about its centre. Before making the cosmos, the creator
made its soul from a combination of indivisible existence, divisible existence, indivisible
sameness and divisible sameness, indivisible difference and divisible difference. The soul
stuff thus produced was divided in the ratio 1:2:3:4:8:9:27 and arranged in two strips that
were converted into circles. (The details are obscure, after the initial division there seems
to be still only one strip of soul substance; I mention this part of the Timaeus only to draw
attention to the numerology) One strip formed the outer circle, the circle of the same, and
carried the fixed starts and rotated uniformly. The other strip formed the circle of the
different, and was subdivided into seven to accommodate the sun and the planets; its
rotation was not uniform.

       The creator made four sorts of living thing: gods, birds, land animals, and water
animals. The heavenly bodies were gods, and there were possibly also gods like those
depicted in Greek mythology. Plato showed little interest in those gods; one feels he
mentioned them only out of courtesy. The created gods were in practice immortal, since
although the creator who made them could dismantle them into their constituent elements,
it would be contrary to his nature to do so. The other living things were mortal, and were
made not by the creator, but by the created gods, whose creation of mortal creatures
mirrored their own creation. However the creator contributed a seed to the mortal
creatures, by using the ingredients left over from making the world soul to make a similar
but less pure mixture, which he then divided into individual souls, equal in numbers to the
stars. All mortal creatures were initially in the form of men as mankind is the superior
animal, and men are the superior sex amongst humans. ‘anyone who lived well for his
appointed time would return home to his native star and live an appropriately happy life;
but anyone who failed to do so would be changed into a woman at second birth. And if he
still did not refrain from wrong, he would be changed into some animal suitable to his
particular kind of wrongdoing...’ Plato followed Pythagoras in believing in reincarnation.

      In the Phaedrus Plato brought in Love, starting with a discussion of a thesis,
supposedly once maintained by one Lysias, that, as friends and sexual partners, lovers
are inferior to non-lovers. Lovers were said to be demanding, inclined to jealousy of their
lovers’ other friends, and, because we satisfy our lovers desires while under the influence
of passion, we are likely to regret doing so when we recover our senses. In discussing that
thesis Socrates began by considering the object of desire, distinguishing two forces
shaping our actions: desire for pleasure and ‘an acquired opinion which aspires after the
best. The irrational desire to enjoy beauty is love.’

    Socrates then claimed he could prove that ‘the madness of love is the greatest of
heaven’s blessings’. He began by referring to the self moved mover, the basis of all
                                                 Page 3
                                  What is Philosophy Chapter 7
                                     by Richard Thompson

existence. The soul is self moving, and therefore immortal. He then pictured the soul as a
charioteer with two, often very different, horses .
           “let the figure be composite - a pair of winged horses and a charioteer. Now the winged horses
       and the charioteers of the gods are all of them noble and of noble descent, but those of other races
       are mixed; the human charioteer drives his in a pair; and one of them is noble and of noble breed,
       and the other is ignoble and of ignoble breed; and the driving of them of necessity gives a great
       deal of trouble to him. I will endeavour to explain to you in what way the mortal differs from the
       immortal creature. The soul in her totality has the care of inanimate being everywhere, and
       traverses the whole heaven in divers forms appearing - when perfect and fully winged she soars
       upward, and orders the whole world; whereas the imperfect soul, losing her wings and drooping in
       her flight at last settles on the solid ground - there, finding a home, she receives an earthly frame
       which appears to be self-moved, but is really moved by her power; and this composition of soul and
       body is called a living and mortal creature.” (Phaedrus #4)

      Some mortals may for a while fly high enough to glimpse the forms in heaven, and
only those who have had that revelation are capable of being born in human form.
            “The soul of a man may pass into the life of a beast, or from the beast return again into the man.
       But the soul which has never seen the truth will not pass into the human form. For a man must have
       intelligence of universals, and be able to proceed from the many particulars of sense to one
       conception of reason;- this is the recollection of those things which our soul once saw while
       following God - when regardless of that which we now call being she raised her head up towards
       the true being. And therefore the mind of the philosopher alone has wings; and this is just, for he is
       always, according to the measure of his abilities, clinging in recollection to those things in which
       God abides, and in beholding which He is what He is.” (Phaedrus #7)

      When we feel love for another it is because their beauty awakens in us dim
memories of the form of beauty we once knew in heaven. If our love is pure and spiritual
having as object a lover in the image of Zeus, that love is under the influence of the nobler
of the two winged horses, but if our love is base and carnal, that is the influence of the
ignoble horse.

      In The Republic Plato was at pains to stress that the gods must be in most respects
unchanging. He began by arguing that gods should not be affected by lesser beings “is not
the best always least liable to change or alteration by an external cause”. (Republic p 119)
So if a god changes at all it must be of his own volition. Plato seemed unhappy with any
change in the state of a god, since he thought that a perfect being, if it changes, could only
change for the worst. “Every god is as perfect and as good as possible and remains in his
own form without change or variation forever” (op cit p 119) Thus gods would never
“disguise themselves as strangers from abroad, and wander round our towns in every
shape” (op cit p 119). He stressed (P 120) that the gods detest falsehood and would never
try to deceive. Plato’s target was Greek Mythology. He regarded the stories about the
disguises, deceptions and carnal adventures of the gods as pernicious falsehoods, but his
observations could also be applied to the Christian doctrine of the incarnation.

      In The Laws, a work in which he was mainly concerned with political questions, Plato
devoted book 10 to theology, primarily to consider the moral implications of religion.
Although he had in the Euthyphro denied that ‘good’ may be defined as ‘the will of God’,
he still considered that religious beliefs and ceremonies are an important source of support
for morality. He believed that support to be threatened by three theses which he
considered subversive.
          “No one who believes in gods as the law directs ever voluntarily commits an unholy act or lets
       any lawless word pass his lips. If he does, it is because of one of three possible misapprehensions:
                                                Page 4
                                   What is Philosophy Chapter 7
                                      by Richard Thompson
       either, as I said, he believes (1) the gods do not exist, or (2) that they exist but take no thought for
       the human race, or (3) that they are influenced by sacrifices and supplications and can easily be
       won over.” (The Laws p 411)

      Seeking to rebut those theses Plato began with atheism, arguing that the existence
of at least some gods is beyond dispute, for the heavenly bodies are gods and we can see
them. [It is interesting that Plato had no qualms about relying on the often derided
evidence of the senses at this point]. Even the atheist does not deny the existence of the
gods, but he does deny that they are gods, on the ground that they ‘are just earth and

      Atheism is a youthful folly that never persists into old age. It arises from the belief
that everything that exists is a product ‘of nature and chance’ so that the universe is not
the result of intelligent planning. The naturalist’s error is to suppose that the soul was the
last thing to appear, whereas it was actually the first. Hence all the things related to the
soul, such as ‘opinion, diligence, reason art and law’ also came before matter.

      The ultimate origin of anything is self generating motion, since any other motion
would require some pre-existing motion to generate it. Yet ‘self generating motion’ is the
definition of ‘soul’ What is created by soul cannot also be self generating motion since it is
generated by something else; both for that reason, and also because soul is older than
matter, soul controls matter.

     There must be at least two souls, a good soul that is allied to reason and order, and
an evil soul allied to unreason and disorder. The orderly behaviour of the heavenly bodies
shows that they are controlled by the good soul.

      As ‘we mustn’t assume that mortal eyes will ever be able to look upon reason and get
to know it adequately’ (The Laws, Penguin edition, P 429) it helps to have an ‘image’ to
think about. A useful image is that of uniform circular motion about a fixed point as that
‘bears the closest possible affinity and likeness to the cyclical movement of reason.’ Until I
read that passage I hadn’t realised that Plato thought that the movement of reason was
circular, and I don’t know what he meant by it; certainly not that reason is futile.

    In the course of discussing the motion of the heavenly bodies, Plato referred to
human souls residing in their bodies, a view that contrasts interestingly with Descartes
much later definition of spirit as what has no spatial position.

      Having, as he supposed, shown that there are gods, Plato argued that they cannot
be indifferent to the state of the universe, for they are rational and so must be aware what
is going on, and they are also good so they must want things to go well. Their rationality
ensures that they realise that it is their duty to intervene on the side of virtue, and their
goodness guarantees that they will then do so.

     We should not complain of our lot because we exist for the sake of the universe as a
whole and if our lives are not entirely to our liking that just shows that the good of the
universe as a whole is not the same as what we perceive to be our personal good, though
of course it really is for our good too.

      When wicked people prosper, that is often considered to be a sign that the gods are
indifferent to such matters, but that ignores the fate of the soul in the afterlife; a soul’s

                                                 Page 5
                              What is Philosophy Chapter 7
                                 by Richard Thompson

prospects in its next life depend on its behaviour in this one, so those who prosper here
may no do so hereafter..

      Because the gods are just, they cannot be influenced by human attempts to
propitiate them. Plato rather weakened his case by concentrating of the, to him absurd,
prospect of the gods overlooking criminal activities in exchange for a share of the spoils.
That does not address the case of someone beseeching divine intervention in what we
would usually consider a worthy cause, such as the cure of a sick friend or relative. To
cover that case Plato should have argued that since they are just, if it is right for the gods
to intervene they will do so whether people sacrifice to them or not, an argument entirely
consistent with Plato’s principles though I did not find it in The Laws.

      Atheism and other forms of impiety should be punished. Honest and law abiding
atheists who honestly avow their disbelief should just be imprisoned. However
‘dissembling atheists’ who conceal their disbelief and take advantage of what they believe
to be their freedom from divine sanction to take advantage of the gullible by practising
divination and mediumship, should be executed.

      Aristotle was the first Greek Philosopher to offer a proof of the existence of a
supreme being. His work was interpreted optimistically by later thinkers as offering a proof
of the existence of the creator God of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Aristotle’s proof relied
on his ideas of substance and metaphysics, so we must start by considering those.

     The relevant parts of Aristotle’s writings are those now collected under the title
‘Metaphysics’. In this section all references to Aristotle are to the Everyman edition of the

      Aristotle’s Substance Aristotle defined substance as what cannot be predicated. So
‘heavy’ and ‘green’ are not substances because we can meaningfully say that something is
heavy or something is green. Types of substance are (P 19):
      (1) Physical objects
      (2) Anything that is an ‘immanent cause of being’, such as the soul of an animal,
which Aristotle elsewhere calls the formal cause of the animal
      (3) ‘The parts immanent in such things, defining them and marking them out as
individuals, by the destruction of which the wholes are destroyed’ Aristotle offers as
examples the Pythagorean claim that the plane is essential to the line and the line to the
plane, so that, at least from the point of view of a Pythagorean, lines and planes are
substances - it is not clear whether Aristotle agreed.

     (4) ‘The essence, whose formula is a definition’

     Aristotle thought (Metaphysics P 333) that substances could therefore be divided into
two main groups
     (a) ‘The ultimate substratum, which cannot be further predicated of anything else’
     (b) ‘That which is individual and separate i.e. the shape or form’

     Substances that can be known through our sense impressions are subject to change
and therefore come within the province of Physics. On the other hand unchangeable
substances are studied in metaphysics.

                                          Page 6
                                  What is Philosophy Chapter 7
                                     by Richard Thompson

     An Eternal Substance. Aristotle thought that there must be an unchangeable
substance arguing as follows.

       It is impossible that movement should ever come about from a state in which nothing
moves, so there must always have been movement, hence there must always have been
time. Now suppose that everything that exists does so contingently, so that nothing
necessarily exists. Then of everything that exists it is true to say that it is possible that it
did not exist. Hence there is some time at which it did not exist, and some time at which
nothing exists. Yet if at sometime nothing existed, nothing would ever exist subsequently,
for if there were nothing, there would be nothing to cause anything to come into existence.
However something does exist now, so there must always have been something, hence
there must be something whose existence is not contingent, something ‘whose very
essence is actuality’ (P 342), and that necessary being must always in motion so that it
can be a source of motion for the rest of the cosmos.

      Such an object is the sphere of the fixed stars which, as we can see, moves with
constant circular notion. For there to be change there must be something always following
a variable motion. The sun plays that part. So the heavenly bodies are the necessarily
existing beings that are the source of movement of other bodies, and their existence
explains why there is something and not nothing.

      The Unmoved Mover Although we have found, in the heavenly bodies, eternal
substances always in motion, the explanation is still incomplete. For motion involves
change of position and change requires a cause. There must therefore be a cause for the
motion of the fixed stars and of the sun. That cause cannot itself move, or change in any
way, else that change would itself require a cause. The cause is therefore an unmoved
mover. It cannot have spatial magnitude as that would imply that it is finite, and it must be
free from any change in quality.

      Just what is the unmoved mover and what does it do? Well, of course it can’t really
do anything, otherwise it wouldn’t be unchanging, and if it were not unchanging the mover
would be subject to change and that change would itself require another cause to explain
it. How then does the mover move the rest of the cosmos without itself moving ? Aristotle
seems to think of it as a final cause exercising some sort of attraction on the rest of the
           “The object of desire and that of thought move in this way; they move without being moved. In
      their primary forms these are identical. For the object of appetite is the apparent good, and the
      primary object of rational desire the real good. Now desire depends on thought rather than thought
      on desire, for thought is the starting-point. Thought is moved by its object, and the terms in the
      column of positives are per se objects of thought; in this column it is substance that comes first. and
      in substance that which is simple and actual. But the good and desirable belongs to the same
      column, and the first term in the column must be best or analogous to the best.'
           That the final cause may be something unchangeable is clear if we consider its various
      meanings. A final cause is (1) something for the good of which an action is done, and (2) something
      at which an action aims; of these the latter may be unchangeable, the former cannot.
           The final cause, then, moves by being loved, while all other things that move do so by being
      moved.” (Metaphysics pp 345-6)

      The sole activity of the unmoved mover is thought, and as it can only think about
what is best, all it can think about is itself. ‘The divine act of thinking will be one with the
object of thought’. It thinks only about its own thoughts. I suppose that Aristotle considered
that the mover could in this way think without experiencing change; perhaps he envisaged
                                                Page 7
                               What is Philosophy Chapter 7
                                  by Richard Thompson

a constant state of awareness rather than an active train of thought.

      Theophrastus (c. 372 - c. 287 BC) who was Aristotle’s successor as head of the
Lyceum, placed less emphasis on metaphysics and showed more interest in developing
the study of the natural world. He suggested that fire is not an element but a state of
whatever happens to be burning, and he taught that ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ are not substances but
attributes. He also denied the Aristotelian beliefs that everything in nature leads to some
end, and that nothing is in vain. For what, he asked, is the purpose of a man’s nipples ?

       Strato (died in 269 BC) who succeeded Theophrastus at the Lyceum was primarily
an experimentalist. He thought that the order we find in the universe should be attributed
to the universe itself, not to any cause outside the universe. He cited the phenomena of
compressibility and diffusion as reasons for thinking that matter is composed of particles
with spaces between them. He thought the soul was a sort of breath diffused through the
body. After Strato little of note appears to have happened at the Lyceum. The Centre of
intellectual innovation moved to the Museum at Alexandria. If Theophrastus and Strato
had been succeeded by others of equal ability prepared to follow where they had led,
experimental science might have appeared almost two millennia before it actually did. In
fact posterity honoured Aristotle, instead of developing his work further, fossilizing the
early stages of what might have been a great intellectual adventure, instead of carrying it

      In Greek Science Benjamin Farrington argued that despite the promising start made
by the atomists, the development of a Greek Science was blocked by a rigid separation
between theory and practice, which was a consequence of the Greek institution of slavery.
Thinkers were slave owners, but technicians were slaves. Even when some technicians
did theorise, as happened in the days of the atomists, the theory did not guide the practice
and the practice did not test or shape the theory. The early theories were not quantitative,
and did not offer explanations of natural phenomena sufficiently detailed to connect theory
and practice.

     Medieval and modern Philosophers who have discussed the concept of God have
usually been interested in the God of Christian theology. Nonetheless many have tried to
adapt Aristotle’s argument into a defence of a creator of that very different kind, and the
argument reappeared in St. Thomas work as the First Cause Argument for the existence
of God.

     Proofs of the Existence of God
     Philosophers have often attempted to prove that there is a God. I shall survey the
better known arguments.

        St. Anselm’s Ontological Argument In the strangest of the Philosophical proofs,
Anselm (1033- 1109 AD, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1093) said that the idea of God is
that of a being perfect in all respects. Perfection implies existence, therefore, in order to be
perfect, God must exist. Descartes and Leibnitz both accepted that argument, though most
commentators have rejected it.

     What in the first place, is supposed to be perfect, God, or the idea of God?

    If the key perfection is God’s, the argument appears to be ‘God is perfect, therefore
God exists’. We could with equal cogency argue that I must have a red lawnmower on the
                                         Page 8
                               What is Philosophy Chapter 7
                                  by Richard Thompson

grounds that, a lawnmower cannot be red unless it exists. True, there is no suggestion that
a red lawnmower would be perfect, but perfection is beside the point. The truth of any
descriptive statement about any entity implies the existence of that entity whether the
entity is supposed to be perfect or not.

     The primary use of ‘exist’ and ‘existence’ is to single out reality as opposed to fiction.
Some propositions are false because they attribute to some subject qualities that it does
not posses, but other propositions are false because they have no subject. Thus ‘Neptune
is angry’ is false, not because Neptune is happy, but because there is no such being as

      Telling a story about a non-existent being, such as Neptune, is to tell a story within
which it is assumed there is a Neptune, so that to incorporate in that story the proposition
that Neptune does not exist would involve a contradiction; however to tell the story, and
then to observe that the story is untrue because there is no such being as Neptune,
involves no inconsistency. The suggestion that there might exist a non existent Neptune, a
non-existent God, or a non-existent unicorn is indeed absurd, but that is not because any
of those beings necessarily exists, but only that they exist if they exist

      Sometimes people suggest there may be different senses of exist. The example that
came to my attention most recently is in Roger Penrose, in The Road to reality p 17 where
he suggests there may be three sorts of existence. ‘the physical, the mental and the
Platonic mathematical’ If that means just that different sorts of things exist, and that their
existence may be checked by different sorts of investigation, it is just a puzzling way of
expression something uncontroversial. However, it appears to assert that propositions of
the form ‘X exists’ may make any one of several different claims, leaving open the
possibility that such a sentence might be true under some interpretations, and false under
others. It is not clear precisely what those different existence claims are supposed to be.

     Although I have never seen it specifically stated, it often sounds to me as if people
who use the Ontological argument were thinking of the idea of God and arguing that the
idea of God would not be perfect unless it existed. Yet if it makes any sense to talk of an
idea existing, that would presumably mean either than the idea is consistent, or that
someone thinks it, but in neither case would that imply that there exists anything
corresponding to the idea beyond our thoughts of it. So the existence of the idea of God
would not imply that there is a God. In any case perfection is not supposed to be a
property of the idea of a perfect being, but of the perfect being itself. Although the idea of
God includes the idea of perfection, it is the perfection of God, not the perfection of the
idea of God.

      As a rule, given a description of something, there may or may not be something
answering to that description. Propositions asserting that something does, or does not,
exist have an oddity that is concealed by the form of words used. Denying that there are
unicorns is not like denying that my lawnmower is red, for to say there are no unicorns is to
deny that a discussion of unicorns has any subject matter. The thrust of the Ontological
Argument appears to be that there must be something corresponding to ‘most perfect
being’ as non-existence is inconsistent with perfection. However, if there is no God there
would be no perfect being and hence no perfect being who lacked existence and hence no

     Thomas Aquinas asserted that it is possible to prove the existence of God, a belief
                                      Page 9
                               What is Philosophy Chapter 7
                                  by Richard Thompson

that is still an article of faith for Catholics. He rejected the ontological argument presenting
instead five proofs:

     (1) Aquinas’s first argument was an adaptation of Aristotle’s argument that movement
requires an unmoved mover as (final) cause.

      (2) Second came the First Cause argument, that everything must have an efficient
cause. Aquinas argued that there would be an infinite regress unless there were a first
cause, which itself has no cause since it does not need any. That first cause he identified
with God. The infinite regress Aquinas rejected was not a temporal sequence of one thing
being preceded by a cause that is in turn preceded by another... It was rather an infinite
sequence of possible questions, something like this: When someone strikes a match it
lights because the friction in the striking produces heat and air is present and the match is
not wet. Air is present because... and the match is not wet because... and there is no
obvious stopping point beyond which someone might not conceivably ask ‘why?’

       As it stands the conclusion of the First Cause argument contradicts its premiss, since
from the assumption that everything has a cause Aquinas appears to deduce that there is
something that does not. The argument is therefore of the form P  ~P from which we
may deduce ~P, so he’s really just disproved the assumption that everything has an
efficient cause. That shows that any cogency the second argument has depends on God
being a permitted exception to the thesis that everything has a cause, and that special
property of God is at the centre of the third argument.

     (3) Material things come into existence and eventually perish, hence the material
world and everything in it is contingent, and therefore cannot be self explanatory. A full
explanation refers to something self explanatory, and only a necessary being can be self
explanatory. The necessary being in terms of which all else may be explained is God.

      Aquinas seems to have been thinking of the universe as a sort of deductive system,
with the existence of God as the supreme axiom from which all else can be deduced, but
even from that point of view his analysis does not constitute a proof of the existence of
God, any more than the articulation of a formal deductive system constitutes a proof of its
axioms. In Aquinas day axioms were considered to be self evident, the starting point of
proofs, not their conclusions. Today axioms are assessed pragmatically according to the
ease with which large bodies of formulae can be deduced from them, so it does make
sense to talk of justifying the use of an axiom, but that is nothing like providing a proof.

      (4) Different things display various perfections, such as goodness, in varying
degrees. Hence they must be approximations to some supreme good, which is the cause
of the lesser goods.

      (5) The preceding four arguments all depend on Aristotle’s theory of knowledge, with
its notions of cause, essence and necessity, so recent debate among those familiar with
the Philosophical tradition has centred on various forms of the fifth argument, which is now
usually referred to as the Argument from Design and has become the most popular
argument for the existence of God. It proceeds as follows.

     The natural world contains systems of great complexity. Living things have many
parts working together rather like the parts of an intricate machine. Physical constants
have just the right values to make matter condense into stars and planets and to enable
                                        Page 10
                              What is Philosophy Chapter 7
                                 by Richard Thompson

planets to support life. The only possible explanation of this is that the universe was
designed by some mighty intelligence. That intelligence is God.

     Although the argument has considerable persuasive power it is certainly not
conclusive. We can imagine various alternative origins for the universe.

      First the orderly universe might not have an explanation. Some Philosophers have
said that everything must have a reason - like Leibnitz with his Principle of Sufficient
reason. (Chapter 3 page 10), but to assume that is no more plausible than assuming the
existence of God, which is indeed often appealed to to justify the Principle of Sufficient

       Second there is an alternative explanation - evolution. Living things evolved to fit in
with this world. Had the laws of physics been different any life that evolved would have
been of some different form that could survive under those conditions. The world is
comprehensible to humans for the same reason. Among creatures relying on an ability to
manipulate their environment those would survive whose manipulations were most often
successful, and they would be the creatures that found the world an orderly place.

      Third, a being does not need to have unlimited power to design our universe, but
just enough power to design this one. A bigger 5 dimensional universe might be
completely beyond the powers and even the comprehension of a being who could easily
design ours. After all Plato thought the animals had been created by lesser gods of only
limited power.

      Fourth the creation might have been a team effort. Many generations of beings and
their computers might have devoted billions of years to the task.

     Fifth the creator might not from our point of view be good. The universe might be a
scientific experiment; or it might be a game for psychotic gods to relieve their stress by
harmlessly indulging their dark phantasies at the expense of expendable creatures
specially made for the purpose.

     Finally the creator might not be immortal, and might even now be dead.

     To sustain the Argument from Design as a conclusive proof, theists need to rule out
every one of these suggestions.

      At best the argument from design makes out a case for considering a creation story
as an hypothesis. Sometimes theologians have drawn parallels with physical theories
about fundamental particles. The parallel is at best very weak. Supposing the universe to
have been created does not help us compress our knowledge into a more compact form,
as the atomic theory facilitates the compression of information about the composition of
chemical compounds. Nor does it provide any consilience of inductions, and it does not
lead to new discoveries. (see Chapter 6)

      However it occurs to me that there is one way that the design hypothesis could
stimulate some research. Consider what in chapter 6 I called ‘Roscoe’s hypothesis’. If
some intelligent being had planned the universe and designed its various life forms, might
it not have left a message for any intelligent life forms that might eventually evolve?
Deciphering the human genetic code has revealed large sections of ‘nonsense DNA’. If
                                        Page 11
                              What is Philosophy Chapter 7
                                 by Richard Thompson

these turned out to contain an encrypted message from the creator on the lines of ‘Well
done so far, you’ve passed test 1, now do X, Y, and Z and see if you can pass the next
test’ that would be very strong evidence indeed for creation. Yet theologians and
theologically inclined scientists show no signs of looking for such a message, or of carrying
out any other research that might provide evidence to corroborate their beliefs, suggesting
that, despite their protestations, they don’t actually consider theology to have a serious
contribution to make to our understanding of the universe.

      Hume in his Dialogues on Natural Religion said that theologians who rely on the
argument from design disable themselves from dealing with the problem of evil. For
attempts to reconcile the presence evil and suffering in the world with the existence of an
all powerful and loving God at best show that evil is compatible with the existence of such
a God. That would make sense if the existence of God could be established without
reference to the organisation of the world. However, the Argument from design is
supposed to infer the properties of God from those of the world, and that commits
someone using the argument to infer the moral properties of God from the moral
properties of the world. If we may infer that a world that seems to exhibit intelligent design
must have been designed by an intelligent God, we may also infer that a world that
appears to have many evil features must have been designed by an evil being.

      The fundamental weakness of the design argument is that design is a weak
explanation, because the full complexity of what is to be explained is present in the
proposed explanation. To say that every detail of the universe was carefully designed to
dovetail into every other detail, assumes that for every detail in the universe there is a
corresponding detail in the creator’s plan, so the creator’s thoughts mirror the complexity
of the universe. If the latter needs an explanation do not the former also need one?

      Contrast such an explanation with the operation of the atomic theory in Chemistry.
The chemist distinguishes just over ninety elements, each characterised in the theory by
just two numbers, the atomic number and the mass number. There are also a few rules
about permissible arrangements of electrons. From that body of theory chemists are able
to derive the properties of millions of chemical compounds. What is explained is of vastly
greater complexity than the theory that provides the explanation.

     The various arguments for the existence of a god are often presented as alternatives,
with the implicit assumption that if one proves unpersuasive, others may do better.
However, it may not be acceptable to assert all the arguments together since they may be
mutually inconsistent. In particular the Argument from Design (AD) and the First Cause
Argument (FC) appear to be mutually contradictory, since the FC purports to demonstrate
the existence of a logical basis for existence that doesn’t act but simply is, while AD
envisages an extremely energetic God. That religious apologists often put forward both
arguments, reinforces my impression that they use arguments as weapons to silence
unwelcome criticism, not as a means to extend and deepen their or our understanding.

     Theists sometimes try to simplify their theory by arguing that God was bound to
create the world as he did, because he is omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly good, from
which it follows that there is only one world he could possibly have created. In that case
the details of how the world works should all be deducible from those premises about God.
However there is no indication of how the laws of nature might be deduced from those
postulates about the creator. So even if true, theism would not explain the world. That it
can still seem plausible is partly due there being no detailed and comprehensive account
                                           Page 12
                                What is Philosophy Chapter 7
                                   by Richard Thompson

of how life began; what scientific theories there are, are still at the stage of unsubstantiated

      As all such speculations involve components of the first living things coming together
by chance it is common for theists to attempt to calculate the chances of such an event
and to say they are so small that we can dismiss such explanations. In the process they
neglect the very great numbers of opportunities there are for life generating events to
happen. Molecules of suitable structure and sufficient complexity to reproduce, are
envisaged to have first appeared by the interaction of smaller molecules dissolved in the
waters of some primitive sea. The chance that any two particular molecules will be in
contact at any particular time will indeed be very low. However even conceding that the
relevant compounds may have been present only in very low concentrations, there may
have been many billions of molecules of each sort, and if we take each second of time as
an opportunity for two to collide, each pair of molecules has 31 million opportunities in
each year. As it seems to have taken many millions of years for life to appear there was
time for highly improbable events to occur now and again.

      Furthermore arguments from probability often unreasonably assume independence,
since they multiply the probabilities of various contingencies to obtain the probability that
all will occur. For example, it is often argued that the eye could not have evolved by the
accumulation of random mutations, because a great many mutations would have had to
occur together to produce an eye. In fact the eye could well have evolved in stages.
Regions of light sensitive skin would in many circumstances have been an advantage to a
creature possessing it. Once selection had produced a population in which patches of light
sensitive skin were universal, a mutation producing a transparent protective covering
might have followed, and such a covering might then in a further step have developed into
a lens. I gather that a variety of primitive light sensitive organs do occur in nature, so the
various features of the eye need not have appeared at the same time, hence the
multiplication of probabilities is not justified.

       Theists usually take it for granted that ‘God willed it’ is, if true, an explanation of the
existence of the universe and of life, but would it explain them? Suppose a friend came to
visit, and we went out for the day, and as we entered the house on our return I said ‘Let
there be dinner’, and on entering the dining room we found the table set and an apparently
freshly cooked meal laid out ready to eat. The friend asks ‘Who got all this ready; there
was nothing on the table when we set out’. I reply, ‘I just did it, didn’t you hear me say ‘Let
there be dinner’? ’ Have I explained anything at all, or have I just deepened my friend’s
perplexity ?

      Within our own experience the direct effects of willing are confined to our own bodies.
Is the whole cosmos supposed to be God’s Body? Perhaps there is a background
assumption that life had no beginning because God at least has always been alive. If that
assumption solves a puzzle, wouldn’t the puzzle be even more neatly solved by assuming
just that there has always been protoplasmic life of the sort familiar to us, and that the
young earth was seeded from older planets?

       I think the parallel sometimes drawn between theology and scientific explanation is
a misunderstanding. The data the theologian wants to explain are rather vague, and the
proposed explanation does not resemble that provided by a scientific theory; the
theologians do not deduce the laws of nature from the hypothesis that the cosmos is the
work of an intelligent designer. The theologian’s model of explanation is not scientific
                                         Page 13
                                What is Philosophy Chapter 7
                                   by Richard Thompson

explanation, but is rather like the explanation of a human action in terms of motive and
intention. The parallel is weak even then. For instance the question ‘Why did Margaret buy
a heated greenhouse?’ is adequately answered by ‘because she wanted to grow tropical
orchids’. That answer makes Margaret’s purchase comprehensible to anyone who knows
that many orchids require temperatures higher than those prevailing in Margaret’s garden,
or even in an unheated greenhouse sited there. Strictly speaking Margaret’s wanting
orchid’s doesn’t imply that she’ll buy the greenhouse. She might have bought a
conservatory instead, or moved somewhere with a warmer climate, or just have decided
not to indulge her wish to grow orchids but to spend her money on something else. But
there is a logical connection of some sort between desire and action. Buying the
greenhouse moves her from a position in which she can’t grow orchids into one where she
can. However the explanation only makes sense against a background of facts about what
is possible and what is not. That is why the superficially plausible parallel with God’s
creation of the universe breaks down. In the theology of the monotheist religions God’s act
of creation cannot be presented as taking place against a background of rules and
constraints, for no rules and constraints can restrict the action of an omnipotent God who
is the author of all rules. Propositions of the form ‘God couldn’t do A without doing B’ do
not make sense, hence ‘God did B in order to achieve A’ doesn’t make sense either.

     Another difference between religious beliefs and the theses of theoretical science is
the believers’ attitude to the possibility that the belief might turn out to be false. It is central
to much religious thought that that possibility is not countenanced, on the other hand
scientists are often quite prepared to consider rivals to the accepted theory, and view with
equanimity the possibility that a theory universally accepted today, might in one day be
greatly modified or even discarded altogether. Popperist scientists are even prepared to
assign the value zero to the probability that any particular theory is true.

      The picture of the infinite, powerful god who is also a person with emotions and
purposes seems to be inconsistent. The various infinities contradict the personality. The
muddle has arisen from a mixture of the cosmological speculations of the philosophers
with the requirements of religion. I shall have more to say about religion later, but at this
point I just want to say that for the purposes of religion an infinite God is not required.
People turn to religion for the reassurance that the universe is under the control of a
friendly power, and like to pile on the superlatives, and as a feeling of reverence is not
conducive to critical thinking, they don’t notice that the superlatives are mutually
contradictory. A finite god seems to me a much better bet for religion, and much of the
everyday talk of the religious, about God loving, planning, hoping and intending, make
sense only if the God in question is finite.

      I agree that there is much about the world that is mysterious and unknown to us.
There is much we do not understand, and shall not understand in the foreseeable future. It
does not follow there is definitely some being whose ways will forever be mysterious to
us. There may indeed be things humans never could understand, though I see no reason
to believe we are yet near to the limits of our understanding, and pessimism about what
we could understand can be overdone. The ideas we handle most easily are those we
meet when young. As one generation’s recondite ideas filter down the educational pyramid
- from post graduate study to undergraduate courses to A. Level and then to GCSE,
members of the new generation feel at home with ideas that would been incomprehensible
to their parents.

     I’ve already remarked that believers load God with superlatives - ‘all powerful’, ‘all
                                       Page 14
                                What is Philosophy Chapter 7
                                   by Richard Thompson

knowing’, to demonstrate their loyalty, but there another reason such descriptions appear
attractive - the yearning for certainty. People think that only a superlative being can offer
complete certainty that things will eventually turn out for the best. However, that certainty
must be qualified in two ways. First, it is only available to those who are certain that there
is a superlative God in charge, and even if God is infallible, his believers are not. Indeed
they frequently contrast God’s might with their own puny fallibility. They don’t believe
themselves to be infallible, so their belief in God’s infallibility must be open to doubt.
Martin Luther struggled for the whole of his life against doubts about God’s grace. Second
the theological certainty that all will turn out for the best is not certainty that the terrors we
fear will not come to pass, in practise it often turns out to be just a resolution to label any
terror that does happen as ‘for the best’. For the existence of a superlative God implies
that everything apparently bad that happens is either really good, or else perhaps a
necessary evil required to achieve some greater good, though that second option may not
be open to someone who believes in an omnipotent and omniscient God.

      When people look to religion for a reassurance that the cosmos is basically a friendly
place in which things are contrived to serve some noble purpose, they are confronted with
the problem that that is often not how things seem to be. Furthermore people who need
such a reassurance are likely to do so because they have experienced the unfriendly side
of things. They need to reconcile unpleasant experiences with the picture of a world as the
product of a benevolent creator, and that is not easy; the struggle to achieve that
reconciliation is the theologians’ Problem of Evil.

       Christians often say that many of the bad things that happen are the result of human
action and that God could not make people who were always good without depriving them
of free will. God didn’t want to make robots, who couldn’t help being good, loving him, and
praising him; he wanted to create people who could choose to do that of their own free will.
But in that case why not create people who, as a matter of fact, would be good of their own
freewill? God could choose to create a world in which Hitler freely decided to go into
politics, or a world in which he freely decided to remain a painter. Why not create the
second world? Freewill is neither here nor there. If creating the second world is to count as
violating Hitler’s freewill by forcing him to remain a painter, creating the first must also
count as violating his freewill by forcing him into politics. The argument shows that
Christians frequently do not take seriously their own beliefs in God’s superlative qualities
(omniscience, omnipotence and perfect goodness). As I’ve already remarked it does not
make sense to suppose that such a God does one thing in order to bring about another, or
that, from the point of view of such a being, anything ever happens or there are ever any
surprises. All that ever happens in the world must have been part of the creation. Before
and after, cause and effect and free will are aspects of the way the world appears from the
limited perspective of human beings, but cannot play a part in the divine view of the

      In any case there are some aspects of the problem of evil to which human freewill is
irrelevant. Many evils are not the result of human actions. Those that are, are often the
unforeseen consequences of innocent actions, such as the transmission of animal
diseases to humans in the close proximity of species involved in agriculture.

      Furthermore evils that are the result of malign human action often cause more
suffering to other people than to the perpetrator. Had the universe been designed by a
benevolent and far seeing intelligence, that need not have been so. Amusement parks
often have ‘dodgems’ in which the little cars are fitted with all round bumpers so that
                                        Page 15
                               What is Philosophy Chapter 7
                                  by Richard Thompson

collisions shan’t injure the passengers in the colliding cars. A benign god could have fitted
people with some sort of abstract bumper so that they couldn’t cause each other serious

      Quite often evils are the direct result of actions people take either on the basis of
religious principles, or to promote their religious beliefs. For example Islam and to some
extent also Christianity were deliberately spread by force of arms. People have been
tortured to induce them to change their religious affiliation and killed for refusing. In parts
of the world religion is invoked to persuade people not use condoms as a protection
against AIDS, and in some cases that advice is supported by lies to the effect that
condoms are ineffective because the gaps between their molecules are larger than the
AIDS virus and therefore cannot impede its passage.

      Atrocities committed in the name of religion are often the work of a small minority of
believers whose fanaticism is deplored by the majority of believers, who say that such
things are no part of their religion. That disclaimer is probably true in many cases, but it
does not follow that the excesses of the minority of zealots have nothing at all to do with
the teachings of mainstream religion. For religion influences not only what people believe,
but the way they believe.

      I once had a colleague who was a regular churchgoer and always seemed confident
that everything would turn out for the best. She was lively, cheerful and energetic and
married with three children. Shortly after winning a scholarship to an Oxford College her
eldest son was found to be suffering from a rare form of bone cancer. She remained
cheerful and confident that all would eventually be well as he seemed to respond well to
chemotherapy, but then, just before he was due to go up to Oxford, the cancer returned
and his condition was diagnosed as terminal. Her religious faith then collapsed. She was
particularly distressed when she found under his pillow pieces of paper on which her son
had jotted down meditations on his condition, expressing the hope that in some way his
sufferings could contribute to the greater good of the cosmos. After he died she stopped
attending church because she thought God had failed her. Theologically the son was right
in thinking that divine goodness guaranteed that if he died it would be for a good reason,
and his mother wrong in thinking it guaranteed he wouldn’t die young. But for that
misfortune it might never have become apparent how fragile her faith was.

      The First Cause in Popular Theology
      When summarising Aquinas’ arguments I observed that, because the first four
arguments depend on Aristotelian metaphysics, it is only the fifth argument that is
common in philosophical circles today. However in general conversation and in the public
utterances of philosophically unsophisticated clergy there often appear arguments
superficially similar to Aquinas first, second and third arguments, but put forward by people
who appear to be entirely innocent of the Aristotelianism from which they are derived.

       I shall refer to such arguments as species of The Popular Cosmological Argument.
Dispensing with Aquinas subtleties about a hierarchy of causes, the popular argument
envisages a temporal sequence of causes. Starting with the assertion that everything must
have a cause the argument applies that to the entire physical universe. If the present state
of the universe is caused by some earlier state, that state must in turn have been caused
by something still earlier. The argument continues that there cannot have been an infinite
sequence of causes stretching back indefinitely into the past, so that there must be some
first cause which does not itself require a cause, and that first cause is identified with
                                           Page 16
                                   What is Philosophy Chapter 7
                                      by Richard Thompson


      The principal difficulty of that argument is to explain why, although it is essential that
there be a cause for the material universe, there is no need to find a cause for God.
Aristotle sought to reconcile that apparent contradiction by appealing to his definition of
cause as an explanation of change, and saying that as the first cause is the final cause of
the universe it deploys its causal efficacy without itself undergoing any change, and
therefore needs no cause. However that ploy cannot be applied to the popular
cosmological argument, which uses the contemporary concept of cause, which roughly
corresponds to Aristotle’s efficient cause. The popular argument appeals to an obscure
notion of a necessary being. Beings are divided into contingent beings, whose existence
depends on some cause, and necessary beings that are their own causes. There is an
echo of Aristotelianism there since Aristotle treated efficient cause as a species of logical
deduction in a way that presupposed his theory of essences and real definitions, so the
concept of necessary being does not make sense outside the Aristotelian system

     It is arguable that the specification for a necessary being implies that its existence
would be logically necessary. For the existence of a necessary being is supposed to
require no explanation. Granting for the purposes of argument that God is such a being,
consider the proposition :

       GM: ‘Even though there is a God, it is possible that there might not have been’

      Granting GM, it would be sensible to ask why there is a god. Yet the claim that God
is a necessary being is supposed to rule out that question, hence it implies that GM is
false. Yet if GM is false it is impossible that there is no God, so the existence of God must
be logically necessary. That seems to reproduce the error of the ontological argument, in
claiming that the definition of ‘God’ implies that there is a God.

     If what is meant ‘necessary being’ is something such that its existence is logically
necessary, that makes it sound like one of the abstract entities of mathematics, not like a
person capable of interacting with the material world by creating it and controlling it, unless
the material world were also necessary If the world were necessary it would be related to
God as a theorem to a set of axioms. However if that were so there would be no need for
another necessary being to explain the existence of the material world; the existence of
the material world could just as well be treated as an axiom itself.

      Those deploying the popular cosmological argument thus need to explain why they
insist that the material world is not necessary but contingent. The standard reason for
asserting that it is contingent is that we can imagine the possibility that there might be no
material world, yet, as Hume observed, the same argument could be used to show that
God is a contingent being.
             “But it seems a great partiality not to perceive, that the same argument extends equally to the
         Deity, so far as we have any conception of him; and that the mind can at least imagine him to be
         non-existent, or his attributes to be altered. It must be some unknown, inconceivable qualities,
         which can make his non-existence appear impossible, or his attributes inalterable: and no reason
         can be assigned, why these qualities may not belong to matter. As they are altogether unknown and
         inconceivable, they can never be proved incompatible with it.” (Dialogues on natural Religion Part

       Another questionable assumption of the popular cosmological argument is that it is
                                                Page 17
                              What is Philosophy Chapter 7
                                 by Richard Thompson

impossible for there to be an infinite sequence of cause and effect going back into the
infinitely remote past. That assumption is usually defended by arguing that even if there
were such an infinite sequence, in which every event was the consequence of some
preceding event, we should still need an explanation for the sequence as a whole, and that
explanation, it is said, would have to be some cause outside the sequence That external
cause is identified with God.

      I see no reason for supposing that an infinite sequence of events would need a
cause outside itself, and if we grant that it does, it seems reasonable to demand that the
composite {infinite sequence of events + God} should also be explained by some
additional causal agent capable of explaining why God chose to create that particular
sequence of events.

     The popular cosmological argument involves three misconceptions about
explanation. First that every event and every object or set of objects must actually have an
explanation, second that that explanation must take the form of a cause, and third that an
explanation must be complete in the sense of presenting the object or event to be
explained in such a light that no further questions arise. As a matter of fact, although we
often seek explanations, we do not always find them, and it is nothing but wishful thinking
to suggest that there must in all cases be an explanation waiting to be found. Those
explanations we do find always leave open the possibility of asking further questions, and
many explanations are not causal; there is for instance nothing of cause and effect in the
explanation of the chemical properties of elements in terms of their atomic structures.

       Let us remind ourselves what everyday explanations look like. Suppose that one day
I arrive home to find two bottles of wine on my doorstep. My perplexity is relieved when
subsequent enquiries among the neighbours reveal that the wine was intended as a
present for one of my neighbours from his sister, who had entrusted her 19 year old son to
deliver it, and he’d misheard the number. That would normally be considered an adequate
explanation of the wine appearing on my doorstep. There are indeed many other questions
that might be asked, but they would only arise if our curiosity went beyond the appearance
of the wine. There might be a story to be told about why my neighbour’s sister didn’t make
the delivery herself, about why she’d decided to give my neighbour the wine, about why
people give each other presents at all, and why the recipients of presents are frequently
relatives of the donors. By making each answer the basis of yet another question we could
extend the inquiry to the entire cosmos and wonder how that came to be. Yet to explain
the appearance of the wine it suffices to say that it was left on my doorstep by someone
who mistook my house for my neighbours. Further questions are optional. People
sometimes assume that an explanation is incomplete until all possible the further
questions have been answered, an assumption that leads to the conclusion that nothing
can be explained short of giving a complete description of the history of the entire
universe. That is a misconception arising from the erroneous assumption that an
explanation is not satisfactory unless all its components are themselves explained. My
neighbour’s nephew’s mistake explains the appearance of the wine even if it is not
accompanied by a further explanation of why it was the nephew and not his mother who
made the delivery.

     It is an oddity of the Popular Cosmological Argument that, having started from the
premiss that no limits may be set to the insistent asking ‘Why?’ it ends by blocking further
enquiry just as we are about to ask the most interesting ‘Why?’ question of all: ‘Why did
God create the world’ For when the theologians say ‘Because it was his nature to do so’
                                         Page 18
                               What is Philosophy Chapter 7
                                  by Richard Thompson

they are really just refusing to answer.

      Arguments from Morality Some philosophers have argued that the existence of a
God is a moral necessity. Kant, among others, argued that justice requires that those who
act righteously should be rewarded by happiness - over all and in the long run, even if not
immediately. Kant considered that we should act from a sense of justice without any
regard for the consequences of our actions, so the virtuous must not seek happiness for
themselves and therefore might well not find it unless things were specially arranged to
make sure that they should. Arranging things so that virtue is rewarded is the function of

      Kant’s argument shows only that, given his premisses, it is desirable that there
should be someone to arrange that virtue is rewarded, but desirability is no guarantee of
reality. Kant seems to be urging his readers to give in to wishful thinking.

       In popular discussions the issue is frequently complicated by religious believers
insisting that God is by definition good. Contrary to their hopes, that does not make it any
easier to use religion as a justification of morality. For, even granting for the purposes of
argument that it is somehow possible to prove that the universe must have a first cause,
that proof would no longer show there must be a God if God has been defined as ‘Good
first Cause’, for once ‘good’ is included in the definition, nothing can count as God unless it
is good, and no argument can establish the existence of God unless it shows that the
being in question is good. To do that would of course presuppose some prior standard of
goodness against which God could be judged, entirely vitiating the enterprise of using
religion to support morality.

     Another argument more often encountered in conversation with the philosophically
unsophisticated than in the works of the great philosophers, is that we need a God to
‘uphold’ moral standards. ‘Uphold’ can mean either ‘provide a basis for belief,’ or ‘enforce’.
Each of those claims seems to me to be wishful thinking, but the first has some very
strange features that I’d like to examine further.

     What would a divine basis for morality amount to? In what circumstances would
people want one?

     (1) Perhaps they don’t know what is right and want a God to tell them? Although that
is conceivable it is unlikely. People who say we need a basis for morality usually have a
very clear idea what they think is right, and want their convictions confirmed by an
argument so compelling that it will reduce those who think otherwise to an awed silence.

      (2) So when they ask for divine support for morality they may really want a divine
policeman to enforce morality, but for the moment I’d like to explore the possibility that
they really do want morality justified.

       (3) In that case we have people saying: ‘We know what is right, but we need a basis
for it’. If they are sure of their morality they presumably already have a basis - whatever
makes them sure, so they have no need of God. Notice that they always are sure that God
will back up their morality, and that he won’t say ‘No, you are wrong, it’s these other
people who are following the true morality’. Furthermore, since they appeal to morality to
support their religious beliefs, they must think their morality better established than their
religion; but in that case their religion cannot support their morality.
                                             Page 19
                                 What is Philosophy Chapter 7
                                    by Richard Thompson

      Such people (call them the OT’s - Opportunistic Theologians) have done no more
than show that, from their point of view, it would be convenient if other people believed
that there were a God who wants everyone to follow precisely the rules favoured by the

      McTaggart remarked that an omnipotent and omniscient creator could not be good in
our sense of the word, as everything that is, must be what he willed, and what evil there is
must be here because he willed it. A being of only limited power might have to create evil
things as a means to creating good things, and a being of limited knowledge might create
evil unintentionally, but neither consideration applies to God. An omnipotent being does
not need means since he can go straight to the ends. He is not constrained by physical
laws that prevent one having a rainbow without the rain, for he creates the laws of Physics

      An Argument for Atheism
      Theists often argue that even if there is no conclusive argument in favour of believing
that there is a god, there cannot be any argument in favour of atheism. ‘Absence of
evidence is not evidence of absence’ they say. I doubt that. Consider two stories:

      (1) Someone claims to have seen in my garden a snail with a red white and blue
striped shell. I look and fail to see any such creature. Perhaps it’s moved to a neighbours
garden, or was underneath a stone or a leaf when I looked. My not finding it doesn’t prove
it wasn’t there, so the ‘absence of evidence ‘ argument seems to apply here.

       (2) But now suppose someone says they’ve just seen a fully grown elephant in my
sitting room. I look and don’t see it, or smell it, or see any other signs. In that case there’s
just no elephant there. My sitting room is too small to provide a hiding place for an

       Theists argue as if the question of the existence of a god were like case (1), but the
monotheist’s all powerful creator God roaming the universe of his creation should be more
like the elephant in the sitting room in case (2). If he were there, everyone would notice.

      Sometimes theists respond that God has chosen that his existence should not be
obvious, so that people have a chance to exercise freewill in deciding whether or not to
believe he exists, and so to give them an opportunity to exercise the virtue of faith. What is
the virtue of belief? One possible chain of reasoning would trace a connection between
religious belief and moral conduct. If religious belief compels men to lead good lives, then
they would not deserve credit for their virtuous behaviour unless their religious belief were
voluntary, and belief supported by overwhelming evidence is not voluntary because the
evidence forces us to believe. However that argument fails because observation of the
behaviour of the religious assures us that religious belief does not compel people to
behave morally.

       We are left with the claim that religious belief is in itself is a virtue, a claim I find most
puzzling. If there is no conclusive evidence on either side of a question, conscientious
enquirers are likely to suspend judgement, and those who do opt for one side or the other
are likely to be divided as to the correct answer. What can be the virtue of reaching one
conclusion rather than another, unless it is that that answer is the one clearly indicated by
the available evidence ?
                                            Page 20
                                What is Philosophy Chapter 7
                                   by Richard Thompson

      Recapitulation of the Arguments
      The classical Philosophers’ speculations about God or gods were closely integrated
into comprehensive theories about the origin and working of the universe. Plato described
the creator as operating within the constraints of Pythagorean numerology, and although
Aristotle distinguished metaphysics from physics, his metaphysics makes sense only as
part of a system that also includes his physics, with its doctrines of essences and the four
types of cause. In St. Thomas’s day science, in so far as there was any, was still basically
Aristotelian. For an Aristotelian, proofs of the existence of an unmoved mover, of a first
cause, or of a necessary being, followed from the same basic principles that supported all
knowledge, since Aristotle also used metaphysics to establish the principles of logic and
the axioms of geometry. So although the arguments may seem odd to us, it is not strange
that Aquinas should have thought them compelling. What is strange is that much the same
arguments are still sometimes put forward today, when the Aristotelian model of
knowledge has clearly failed. Without Aristotle’s physics, his metaphysics cannot stand
alone. Had talk of gods been simply part of a theoretical cosmology, Aristotelian theology
would almost certainly not have survived the demise of Aristotelian science. Its survival is
a consequence of its connection with religion.

       Religious belief Interest in God is usually generated less by dispassionate curiosity
about the nature of reality, than by an interest in religion.

     So far I’ve considered religious beliefs only as contributions to cosmology and
cosmogony, but it’s now time to put them in their religious context, which in the case of the
Philosophers I’m discussing means in the context of Christian theology.

      ‘What is religion?’ is one of those questions best avoided as far as possible, but I
can’t avoid it entirely because people do indulge in tortuous discussions of what does, and
what does not, count as religion. Any comment about religion is therefore likely to attract
such comments as ‘that isn’t true religion’ or ‘that isn’t a necessary part of religion’

     The concept ‘religion’ is rather like ‘game’, and much of Wittgenstein’s discussion of
‘game’ also applies to ‘religion’, but I don’t think the parallel is perfect, for religions, unlike
games, do all share one common factor. Every religion is to some extent a way of life,
although not every way of life is a religion.

     The central case of religion is a way of life combined with rules of behaviour,
customs, festivals and ceremonies, all linked to a belief system that provides stories to
support the rules of behaviour and to illuminate and interpret the customs and ceremonies.

      The belief system typically includes the belief that the world is guided by (usually)
hidden powers - the gods and spirits, that are usually non human persons of superhuman
powers, and are mostly well disposed to humanity. The gods are credited with providing
the rules on which human morality is based and their deeds are celebrated in the religious
ceremonies. Those ceremonies also include attempts to communicate with the gods
through prayer, praise or sacrifice. The typical religion is a social organisation where
people come together to worship and to have parties to celebrate religious festivals.

     Except that there is always some social dimension, almost any of those features can
be absent, without disqualifying a movement from being a religion. Buddhism recognises
no god, and the gods of Greek mythology were by ordinary standards not always good (‘by
                                       Page 21
                                   What is Philosophy Chapter 7
                                      by Richard Thompson

no means conforming to the standards of Kensington respectability’ as John Wisdom put
it). In Hinduism, although there are many gods, belief in them seems to be optional. A
Hindu friend once told me that the important thing for Hindus is to follow the customs and
perform the rituals; what one believes was considered to be of little importance.

      It could even be argued that the existence of hermits shows that a religion need not
incorporate any sort of social life; possibly, but there are no religions in which all the
followers are hermits. The latter are always a small minority among the adherents of a
predominately social religion. Despite the exceptions and variations, a good many of the
features of my typical religion are present in all the religions I can think of. The Shorter
Oxford English Dictionary says of ‘religion’:
      1 A state of life bound by religious vows; the condition of belonging to a religious order, esp. in the
        Roman Catholic Church.
      2 A particular monastic or religious order or rule. Now rare.
      3 Belief in or sensing of some superhuman controlling power or powers, entitled to obedience,
        reverence, and worship, or in a system defining a code of living, esp. as a means to achieve
        spiritual or material improvement; acceptance of such belief (esp. as represented by an organized
        Church) as a standard of spiritual and practical life; the expression of this in worship etc. Also (now
        rare), action or conduct indicating such belief; in pl., religious rites.
      4 A particular system of such belief.
      †5 Devotion, fidelity; conscientiousness; pious attachment. |16–l17.
      †6 The sanction or obligation of an oath etc. e17–e18.

      When the law, and especially the law of taxation is concerned, the authorities need
to be able to say definitely whether any putative religion is, or is not, what it claims to be.
the following come from :
          “The Charity Commission has suggested that Paganism is not a valid religion which, it suggests,
       "signifies a system of faith and worship involving the recognition on the part of man of some higher
       unseen power having control of his life and destiny which is entitled to reverence and worship in
       particular ways." Further, this "unseen power" must be "a deity having an entity outside the body
       and life of the worshipper."
          For example, both Buddhist and Hindu organisations are registered by the Commission as
       religious charities despite the fact that Buddhists recognise no god, and that while Hindus have a
       number of them, many Hindus nonetheless seek Nirvana through introspection.

         The Commission maintains that these exceptions are made for the world's great religions
       because of their "antiquity". “

      Note that the Charity Commission seems to require that the core beliefs of the
religion apply to the entire cosmos, rather than reflecting just the perceptions of believers.

      The monotheist religions of the Judeo-Christian tradition share the belief that there is
just one God, all knowing, all powerful and perfectly good. That is not the only form of
religious belief but it is the one with which I am most familiar and it is also the belief that
has in one way or another influenced many of the philosophers I’m discussing. Christian
monotheism is also the most problematical of the concepts of God so I shall devote most
of my discussion to the monotheists’ God, in its Christian form.

       Christians usually say that God, as well as being all knowing, all powerful, and
perfectly good, is eternal, meaning outside time, is immaterial, that is without any spatial
position, and is also a person whom one can know at a personal level, and that thus to
know him inspires complete trust in the believer. God created man in his own image so
                                                Page 22
                               What is Philosophy Chapter 7
                                  by Richard Thompson

that each of us, with varying degrees of distortion, reflects our divine creator.

     How must the universe and his creation of it appear to such a being? We humans
see events happening one after the other, so we are aware of the present, to some extent
remember the past, and speculate about the future. Our view of the world is serial, and
much is hidden from us and much of our thought concerns what is hidden. We make plans
and hope things will turn out well, but fear that they may not. However God’s view would
not be serial. Free from the constraints of time and space, God must be aware of all
events. For him there is no past or future. Now consider creation as it would appear from
the point of view of such a being.

      A creator of limited power whose outlook was constrained by time might create a
starting point from which he hoped the universe of his dreams would eventually develop.
As Pythagoras believed, he might plant a seed from which the universe would grow.
However for the infinite eternal God, free from all constraints, there would be no distinction
between seed and harvest, between starting point and finished product, no earlier and
later. The universe would just be created, all of it. From God’s point of view nothing
happens. God would be aware of events only as components in the limited picture of
reality available to the serial creatures who inhabit his creation. For an event is one state
of affairs followed a little later by another, and for God there would be no temporal
sequence, though there would be patterns corresponding to what humans perceive as
temporal sequences and events.

        Does God choose what world to create? Between what alternatives might he
choose? God is said to perfectly good, so that it would be ‘contrary to his nature’ to do
anything evil - not because he is constrained not to, but because that is the way he is. (I
assume for the purposes of argument that there is some agreed criterion of ‘good’ and
‘evil’; in principle they are supposed to be defined in terms of the nature of God, in practice
it is usually taken for granted that they coincide with the standards of the speaker)
Combine the goodness with the omniscience, so that God knows precisely what any
possible creation will contain (from a human point of view he knows precisely what will
happen in any world he makes, but of course from God’s point of view nothing ‘happens’),
then there can be only one world that God could attempt to create, namely the best
possible. As he is also all powerful the attempt must be successful, so the best possible
world must be created. That was Leibnitz’s conclusion, that this is the best of all possible
worlds, and the only world God could possibly have created. Leibnitz is generally regarded
as eccentric in this respect, but he seems to have gone no further than to draw
conclusions from core Christian beliefs. Furthermore, as we noted earlier, the creation
cannot be the creation of a seed or starting point from which the universe gradually
develops, it must be the creation of a complete set of objects, situations, and what we
humans would call events.

      What from our point of view are past present and future, must all be perceived
together by God, and created as a complete system. Imagine the world as a series of
globes (for simplicity I restrict the discussion to planet earth - we could include the whole
solar system by imagining instead a series of orreries) Every state of affairs that ever takes
place is represented by a globe. Every event that occurs will be represented by successive
differences between some sequence of globes, and every being that ever exists will be
represented by models appearing on the globes that represent the states of affairs that
make up that being’s lifetime. From a human point of view there is only one globe, which
changes with time, but from the point of view of an eternal being there is no change, but
                                            Page 23
                               What is Philosophy Chapter 7
                                  by Richard Thompson

just the set of all the globes, and time and change would be just appearances generated in
humans by their encountering globes in a certain order. Humans see themselves as
making decisions that may shape future events. The decisions, the events, and the
patterns in those events that humans interpret as cause and effect will all be evident to an
eternal being, but from the point of view of that being there is no such thing as freewill, for
there is no future; nothing is hidden or incomplete, there are no actions and therefore no
sequence of events whose course needs to be shaped. What appear to humans to be
good deeds or bad are from the point of view of the eternal just patterns in the original
creation - except that from the timeless perspective there can be no creation either, for that
would be an event and in time.

      The world, following from the nature of the infinite God must really be a part of God,
since if it is of the nature of God to make such a creation, God could not exist without the
creation. Indeed, the creation can hardly be distinct from the creative thought - except that
for the infinite eternal God there can’t really be a thought either. So it would be wrong to
say God decided to create the universe as it is, for the word ‘decide’ suggests a choice
between alternatives, and for God there would be no alternative. He could never
experience hope, fear, surprise, disappointment, or make a decision. He could not, from
his own POV do anything, but could only be. Arguably God could not even create. After
all, assuming that God and the Universe must be co-existent, there would be no occasion
for a creation. So described God looks like a robot, or perhaps an abstract cosmic principle
- an axiom from which the universe is deduced rather than a person who made it

     The God of the superlatives, timeless and unlimited is Aristotle’s God, not the God of
the Bible. Christian theology is an unstable mixture of Jewish theology and Greek
Philosophy, a doomed attempt to marry Aristotle’s sedately inactive unmoved mover to the
hyperactive cosmic busybody whose adventures are related in the Bible, and especially in
the Old Testament. Today Aristotle’s intellectual heirs are not the Thomist theologians, but
the cosmologists who speculate about black holes, big bangs, big crunches and twelve
dimensional superstrings.

      Many theists recognise the difficulties in the supposed proofs of the existence of God
and do not think their beliefs capable of proof, instead they propose to base them on what
they call ‘faith’. That presents a difficulty since ‘faith’ usually means trust in someone we’ve
learnt we can depend on. In that sense faith can’t be a justification for belief in the
existence of the being that is the object of that faith; since the faith presupposes that we
already not only know that there is such a being, but know a good deal more about it too.
What is involved in the religious appeal to faith seems to be just a conviction that people
are in some way in touch with God. At best that might show that they are experiencing a
presence of some sort, but it’s hard to see how it could support the intricate theologies to
which many believers are committed.

     Although William of Ockham expressed doubts about the possibility of basing
Christian theology on reason, the movement away from natural theology has been
strongest among Protestants.

      F.D.E. Schleiermacher (1768-1834) thought that the essence of religion is the
feeling of absolute dependence on God. He suggested that the concept of God was not
originally that of a perfect being, but rather that feeling of dependence. He drew the
conclusion that religion does not originate in ideas, but in our experience of God. The form
taken by that experience depends on our culture. In Christian Europe the experience is
                                          Page 24
                              What is Philosophy Chapter 7
                                 by Richard Thompson

therefore focused on the person of Christ. To Schleiermacher is attributed the emphasis
on Christology that subsequently became very important in Protestant thought. In the
context of our personal experience of Christ, Natural Theology and its proofs are likely to
seem relatively unimportant, even if they are not entirely discounted.

      Once proofs and appeals to external evidence are set aside and beliefs are justified
by appealing to our feelings and subjective impressions, it is only a matter of time before
some decide that those feelings and impressions are what religion is really about, so that
the stories of God and the creation have no reality outside the minds of the believers. That
step was taken by Strauss and Feuerbach.

     D. F. Strauss (1808 - 1874) became notorious for his Life of Jesus (1835-7).
Intending to write a straightforward account of what is known of the life of Jesus, he soon
decided that the gospels are largely unhistorical, claiming that they cast into narrative form
a combination of Jewish expectations of a messiah, and recollections of the teachings of a
remarkable man - Jesus.

       At the time he wrote the Life Strauss was a Hegelian and thought that even if the
Gospels were not literally true they need not be deliberate fraud, but could be an example
of what Hegel had called ‘unconscious invention’, by which he meant they were myths
embodying the human yearning for the spirit to reach its ultimate goal, which was a
special sort of freedom that can only be enjoyed as a citizen of a rational state, an idea I
shall discuss in chapter 9. Strauss eventually abandoned Hegelianism and came to regard
religion as of primarily aesthetic value, symbolising the good life.

      Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872) Strauss’s analysis of religion was further developed
by Feuerbach who held that religion is a projection in which people imagine their own
aspirations to be fulfilled in the fantasy lives of imagined supernatural beings. The story of
incarnation is the imaginary fulfilment of the human wish to become God. We attribute our
good impulses to God while maintaining our own responsibility for our misdeeds, thus
creating a fictitious external judge to represent our own self critical review of our
behaviour. That process is possible only because human nature is infinite in the sense that
we can look at ourselves as if from the outside, and look at the way we look at ourselves,
and look at the way we look at ourselves looking at ourselves.....and so on.

     We need to destroy the illusion of religion in order to bring the underlying process
into consciousness, thus establishing conscious control over our intellectual and
imaginative powers so that they can be directed to the improvement of human life.

      Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855)
      While a student at the University of Copenhagen Kierkegaard reacted against
Hegelianism complaining that it did not offer him ‘the idea for which I can live and die’. At
the same time he reacted against the pietistic Lutheranism in which he had been brought
up, leaving the University to indulge in a period of riotous living. After a while he rejected
dissipation, probably partly because he found it boring, and returned to the University to
study to become a pastor.

    His career in the church did not progress far beyond the preaching of his first
sermon. He rejected organised religion as ‘nothing to do with Christianity’, denounced
what he saw as the institutionalised knowledge of the universities, and broke off his
engagement, becoming a reclusive free lance writer.
                                       Page 25
                               What is Philosophy Chapter 7
                                  by Richard Thompson

      Suspicious of abstractions, Kierkegaard thought that metaphysical system building
could not do justice to the concreteness of human existence. he denied that it is possible
to establish religion by rational argument.

       Central to Kierkegaard’s account of human life is an insistence upon our exercise of
an undetermined will. We choose whether or not to follow God, and we choose whether
or not to live according to morality. An undetermined choice is not just free in Aristotle’s
sense that it’s cause is internal to us. Kierkegaard thought a choice should be completely
undetermined and should be made without appeal to any criteria. He said that we cannot
justify the use of any criterion for making our choices since any such criteria would then
themselves require justification, creating an infinite regress. Instead of being grounded in
reason, choices should be made with passion. Evidently Kierkegaard did not consider the
need for passion to be a criterion. Perhaps he thought that the passion could apply to the
manner of our choosing without determining the outcome, but I think that is questionable.
People are often at their most predictable when they act passionately.

     The choice of morality was thought of as a choice to live morally instead of following
our aesthetic impulses. Kierkegaard seems to have taken it for granted that the accepted
morality of nineteenth century Denmark was the only morality available and he did not
consider the situation of someone choosing between a number of possible moral codes.

       He considered the choice to follow religion to be a leap of faith in which we embrace
the absurd, like Abraham when he was prepared to kill his son at what he believed to be
the behest of his tribal god. Just as the choice of morality would, if made, be a choice to try
to live according to the Christian morality of his day, so Kierkegaard took it for granted that
if one chose religion, it would be Protestant Christianity.

      Considering how we obtain knowledge, Kierkegaard rejected the Platonic theory of
reminiscence, and thought that the only alternative was that we should learn from a
teacher. The only teacher capable of so transforming us that we might come to know the
truths of religion, is God himself. However, were God to appear to us in his full glory,
displaying his infinite power, we should be so overawed that we’d be unable to learn. He
can therefore only teach us by appearing to us in the form of a man. The incarnation is a
paradox we can only appreciate by subordinating our reason to Christian revelation.

      Kierkegaard’s writings represent an important stage of the development of defensive
theology. The consensus among earlier theologians had been that it was possible to justify
at least some basic religious beliefs with cogent arguments that might be expected to
persuade fair minded and rational unbelievers. If some were doubtful about such an
enterprise it was not so much because they doubted the possibility of constructing valid
proofs of the existence of God, but because they thought either that it was somehow
demeaning to God to offer proofs, or that the human mind is too weak to understand such
matters. Kierkegaard, on the other hand, was part of a movement to insulate theology from
rational discussion for fear that it might not survive open debate. I see it as a sign of a loss
of confidence among Christians in the intellectual credentials of their religion, a change
that correlates with a decline in Christian faith.

     A faith based theology less eccentric that Kierkegaard’s was propounded by:

     Karl Barth (1886-1968)
                                          Page 26
                                What is Philosophy Chapter 7
                                   by Richard Thompson

      Barth was a Calvinist, who believed that every human is amongst the elect. Barth
attacked the liberal Protestant theology of the early twentieth century as ‘subjective’. He
thought that religion should be solely the expression of divine revelation, uninfluenced by
contemporary culture and uncontaminated by the admixture of beliefs about human

      The fall has crippled man morally, so that we cannot earn salvation by our own
efforts, but must depend on divine grace. It has also crippled us intellectually so that we
are incapable of discovering truths about God through our own intellectual efforts. Barth
therefore rejected the whole enterprise of Natural Theology with its supposed proofs of the
existence of God.

     Barth held that there is no similarity or analogy between God and man. God is so far
above us as to be beyond our comprehension, so we are not entitled to judge God and so
should not attempt to explain away awkward passages in the bible. Yet that does not
mean that the bible should be treated as a ‘paper pope’. Although it records witness to the
word of God, it is not itself the word of God.

      Any proposed system of dogmatics must pass two tests. It must be humble, by
refraining from any attempt to prove its own validity. It must also express the doctrine of
predestination, in particular by recognising that all our religious insights are due to God.

      It seems to me that the enterprise of supporting religion by appealing to faith is more
like choosing a way of looking at the world than justifying a belief about the way things
are. That would explain why the religious often say that we cannot fully justify any world
view and that atheism too is a matter of faith. Faith based religion has difficulty in
accounting for certain religious beliefs that most of us find repugnant, and which could
hardly be part of a world view we should be prepared to admit to having chosen. For
example, Christians used to believe that babies that die without being baptised are
condemned to an eternity of torture in Hell. ‘I doubt not but there be babes not a span in
length crawling on the floor of hell’ remarked one medieval commentator.

      People have given religious grounds for denying painkillers to women in childbirth,
and some (Christian Scientists) object to all use of painkillers, claiming that pain is simply
the physical symptom of sin. People with religious objections to blood transfusions try to
prevent these being given to their children. If someone considered they had proved a
body of theology that led to any of those unwelcome conclusions, one could understand
their saying ‘too bad; its a great pity, but unfortunately that’s just the way things are; I
expect there is some reason for this that is beyond out understanding’ though one would
hope they’d say that only after checking their arguments carefully to make sure that the
unwelcome conclusion was unavoidable. On the other hand when the repugnant belief is
supported primarily by faith, there is no compulsion to believe it. Indeed people often say
that God denied us proof of his existence to leave us the freedom to choose what to
believe. In that case why not use that freedom to choose not to believe in the uncharitable
doctrine? Why not choose to have faith in anaesthetics and blood transfusions?

      I fear that there are some people who do not find cruelty unpalatable and so have no
wish to avoid suffering, but I think that in most cases people who support their beliefs by
faith rarely see the logical implications of that policy, still thinking that their faith provides
insight into some reality independent of their own aspirations and those of their fellow
                                           Page 27
                               What is Philosophy Chapter 7
                                  by Richard Thompson

believers. While that misconception need not prevent beliefs from being adjusted to avoid
cruel and otherwise unwelcome consequences, it does slow the process down.

       Increasing numbers of Christians in Europe and North America are coming to choose
the charitable options. A topical example where Christian opinion is still divided is provided
by attitudes to homosexuals. Christians who accept that there can be loving relationships
between people of the same sex often still object to solemnizing such relationships in
church, or to allowing the clergy to have partners of the same sex. The attitude of such
Christians is often ‘yes that is a loving relationship, but unfortunately its physical
expression is not allowed’ but a faith based religion is unlikely to sustain such a position
indefinitely, unless it reflects a genuine strain of cruelty among many of the faithful. Such a
religion cannot be the primary source of standards, but can only follow a short way behind
the evolution of contemporary standards, gaining at most a temporary respite for the
traditional values to which many believers are attached.

      In discussions with unbelievers, religious apologists frequently try to denigrate
scientific, critical and rational thought, using phrases such as ‘we can’t be rational all the
time’, ‘your scientific beliefs are based on a faith in science just as my beliefs are based on
religious faith’. I think religious belief can function as a sort of AIDS of the intellectual
immune system, shielding religious belief from rational scrutiny at the expense of
disarming our defences against irrational folly of any sort. Just as people don’t die from
AIDS directly, but instead from the diseases that flourish when AIDS has made the
immune system ineffective, so the follies of religious fanaticism are often not direct and
inescapable consequences of religious belief, but rather additional intellectual poison that
spreads freely in minds that have been disarmed to allow orthodox belief to flourish.

     Sources of Religious Authority

       For completeness I’ll mention briefly two other types of argument that often turn up in
discussion. Religion is sometimes supported by references to sacred writings, or to stories
of miracles - remarkable events associated with founders or prominent practitioners of a
religion. The two types of authority are usually not independent as the sacred writings are
likely to be the sources of the miracle stories.

     A holy book cannot fully satisfy the requirement of an incorrigible basis for knowledge
since it is fallible humans who transcribe the supposedly divine utterances, and humans
who select which of the many holy books available they shall accept as the word of God,
and how they shall interpret the many ambiguous passages in those texts.

      On the other hand it may be argued that, even if it is not decisive, an appeal to
authority may not be pointless. Even if it cannot entirely eliminate the need for evidence
and justification, it may change the form of evidence required. Evidence for the reliability of
the authority replaces direct evidence about the subjects on which we hope the authority
will enlighten us. In everyday life we frequently rely on authorities such as doctors or
lawyers for information, but those cases are importantly different from the religious case.
We can check the reliability of doctors and lawyers by referring to their reputations and
qualifications. We can also to some extent assess the reliability of any other human by
estimating his honesty, reliability and general intellectual competence, especially if we
know him well. However a confident judgement that a person P is a reliable authority can
be made only by someone who combines detailed knowledge of the subject of P’s
supposed expertise, with a familiarity with P’s beliefs and thought processes, based on
                                          Page 28
                                   What is Philosophy Chapter 7
                                      by Richard Thompson

long discussions with P, or on the reading P’s publications or marking P’s examination

     There is no parallel with religious belief since not even the most confident theologian
claims either to have such knowledge of God, or to be competent to judge God’s
competence. When believers claim direct personal experience of God, they seem to have
in mind an emotional experience rather than a seminar or an examination, and nothing
could be further from their minds than undertaking a critical examination of God’s

     Unless associated with miracles, scriptures have nothing more to support their
authenticity than tradition and their own assertion of their divine inspiration. Although that
presents no problem when scriptures are used to guide members of a community who
already accept their authenticity, it robs them of any power to justify a belief system
against a challenge from outside.

       Miracles, in turn, usually have no support other than descriptions of them in
scriptures. Even if such events were observed, as opposed to just alleged, it would hardly
be a good reason for believing whatever the people associated with the miracle were
telling us at the time. It would rather provide a prima facie case for believing in the
existence of technology unfamiliar to us or, what might amount to the same thing,
creatures more powerful than ourselves. Most important: no miracle could show the
existence of a being with unlimited power. To infer that something could not be done by
anything of less than infinite power, assumes that nothing of merely finite power could do
it, and when we make that judgement simply because we are unable to explain the
remarkable event in question we implicitly assume that we ourselves can explain
everything that can be achieved by any finite cause, however ingenious or powerful it may
be, which greatly exaggerates our own intellectual powers.

      In his essay Of Miracles Hume argued that, since a miracle contradicts the laws of
nature, we have a strong reason for rejecting any claim that such an event occurred, and
that if someone testifies to the occurrence of a miracle, his doing so undermines his
credibility as a witness. Hume also observed that reports of miracles are rare in our own
times, but become more frequent in stories of the remote past that are now inaccessible to
investigation. Miracle stories are also more common among the uneducated than among
the educated. Different religions are mutually contradictory, yet all appeal to stories of
miracles. At the very least most of those stories must be cited in the support of false
beliefs, and yet there is no intrinsic difference between the miracle stories of one religion,
and those of another, by which the true stories might be distinguished from the false.
Religious believers themselves have become adept at deploying sceptical arguments to
deal with the scriptures and miracle stories of other religions, although they often don’t see
the relevance of those arguments to their own beliefs.

     It is arguable that there is a fundamental flaw in the very idea of miracle. The Shorter
Oxford English Dictionary says:
       “A marvellous event not ascribable to human or natural agency, and therefore attributed to the
     intervention of a supernatural agent, esp. (in Christian belief) God; spec. an act demonstrating control
     over nature, serving as evidence that the agent is either divine or divinely favoured.”

     So a miracle is conventionally thought of as an event that is inconsistent with the

                                                Page 29
                                  What is Philosophy Chapter 7
                                     by Richard Thompson

laws of nature. Yet laws of nature, cause and effect, are patterns we notice in our
observations of the world. They are not prescriptive rules forcing the world to behave in
particular way, but descriptions of how we find the world behaves. Given an event that
appears to be inconsistent with what we believe to be the laws of nature the standard
reaction is (1) to check carefully that it really is inconsistent - perhaps there is some
feature we haven’t noticed that provides a clue to some natural explanation and (2), if (1)
fails, consider revising the laws of nature. We cannot permanently sustain a position where
we both believe in a set of laws of nature and also believe in the occurrence of a category
of events that contradict them. Such a contradiction is at most a temporary state of affairs
that must eventually end in one way or the other. If the occurrence of the putative miracle
is established, that refutes the law of nature to which it provided an exception, so as soon
ast we become convinced that it happened, we realise it was not a miracle, since the
theory it contradicted has, through that very contradiction, been shown not to be a law of

     A possible way round that argument is to allow that there can be laws of nature that
are subject to occasional exceptions. I can think of three ways in which that might happen.
(1) The laws we notice may be what Mill called empirical laws, just true most of the time
because they are simplifications of deeper laws that are universally true, but which we
have not yet discovered, like Lavoisier’s belief that all acids contain oxygen that is true of
most common acids but not quite all (exception hydrogen chloride). (2) There may not be
any universally true laws of nature at all. Laws that are true most of the time may be the
best we can produce. (3) Laws of nature may just be probability rules governing what
happens in most cases without there being any underlying laws that are universally true. If
a law says ‘most A are B’ there may be no explanation of the cases where an A is not B.

       Case (2) is the one under which it might be possible to define a category of ‘miracle’,
but only if some of the events that don’t conform to the laws of nature conform instead to
some other rule, such as ‘happened just after the High priest prayed that it would happen’.
The world might be like a mixture of two jigsaw puzzles, with 90% of the pieces from the
scientific picture and 10% from the religious. It might be, but I can see no sign that it is.
Notice by the way that a single event in isolation could not establish case (2). An isolated
exception to the supposed laws of nature is insufficient, we should need a set of
exceptions that in some way hung together. Otherwise the putative miracle could indicate
case (1) or indeed case (3). However no theory of the miraculous could be based on case
(3) since that would place miracles beyond the scope of explanation, so we could never be
justified in attributing miracles to any agency, either human or divine. In any case (3) is a
poor basis for the explanation of knowledge, for to assume that any particular event is
uncaused risks missing some more comprehensive system of laws of nature in which it is
explained. 1

     The mutual disparagement of believers and unbelievers
     It is rare to find a meeting of minds between believers and unbelievers. Believers
often think unbelievers are unimaginative, spiritually blind, rebels against God who fail to
see what it should be plain to see, and often go on to say that unbelievers are also
subverters of morality. Unbelievers often conclude that theists are gullible, muddled,

         We need consider case (3) only when someone claims that every event must have a cause or
explanation, not just to persuade us always to look for a cause, but to argue that in the absence of any
known natural explanation we must assume there is a supernatural explanation. That assumption is at least
as likely to discourage further research as the assumption that the event has no explanation.
                                               Page 30
                                What is Philosophy Chapter 7
                                   by Richard Thompson

possibly dishonest, or at least confused to believe so confidently something for which there
is so very little evidence. Contrary to both those uncomplimentary descriptions, many
thinkers on both sides of the debate appear to be intelligent, honest and thoughtful people,
so we need to look for an account of their differences that doesn’t denigrate all those on
one side or the other. (Of course, on both sides there are some people who merit all the
abuse directed at them from the other side; my point is that there are also many who do

       An error common to many on both sides of the debate is the Cartesian assumption
that every belief must be based on evidence, a demand which is unrealistic as it precludes
knowledge ever starting. As Peirce pointed out we cannot choose a starting point for our
thinking. The only place we can start is where we find ourselves when our thinking
commences. We start with what we were brought up to believe, usually with the beliefs
generally accepted in our society. We then have the option of reviewing those beliefs in
the light of logic and experience, possibly comparing them with the beliefs current in other
societies. Many people are not in the habit of thinking for themselves about theoretical
matters. They take the word of the acknowledged expert on scientific and technical
matters, and are happy to follow those they consider experts on theological questions too.

      Theists or atheists are not irrational to accept the beliefs in which they were brought
up so long as they do so because they have never seen the need to question them. In
some circles it is easy not to encounter challenges to such beliefs. Religious belief and,
perhaps to a lesser extent, disbelief, tends to run in families. Belonging to a religion usually
involves membership of a church. For a practising religious believer that part of social life
that extends beyond the family circle may be centred on the church. Even education may
take place in church schools. So someone who grows up in a religious family may rarely
make more than a casual acquaintance with anyone from a different faith or none. Given
the convention that it is impolite to subject other people’s religious beliefs to a close critical
scrutiny on social occasions, it is likely to be most unusual for a religious person to hear
their faith challenged, and what challenges they do meet may be either humorous banter
that does not appear to present any intellectual challenge, or else so ill informed as not to
merit attention.

      To some extent the same could happen to someone brought up without religion,
especially if the irreligion is part of a proselytising ideology like Marxism, though, it is
unlikely that atheist schools will be available, except under a Communist government.

       Self deception may be a factor, because strong emotions are oten involved in
religious belief. Everyone succumbs to elf deception from time to time and it need not
involve either dishonesty or illogically, though it does involve a lack of thoroughness.
Confronted with an unpalatable proposal we scrutinise it closely and reject it as soon as
we find any fault. When eventually we come upon a congenial point of view, we scrutinise
it less closely, and if someone else finds errors in it we don’t abandon it at once but try to
reformulate it to avoid their objections. It can thus appear that people have chosen to
believe what they would like to believe, even when no such devious calculation has
actually occurred.

     Of course it must be rare for a theist today not to notice that there are unbelievers,
but a theist not particularly interested in theology or ideas might well never encounter an
informed debate on theism, and might easily dismiss the occasional atheist argument he
does encounter as a difficulty rather than a doubt. That distinction must often have been
                                           Page 31
                               What is Philosophy Chapter 7
                                  by Richard Thompson

the excuse for evading unwelcome arguments but there is a valid point behind it. If
someone produces what purports to be a proof that 1 = 0 we don’t stop doing arithmetic
until we’ve found an error in their reasoning. Finding the error may be an amusing and
instructive exercise, though it may also be quite time consuming, but we always think of it
in that way, as finding the error, not as finding out whether or not 1 really does equal
zero. Nor do we consider it necessary to find the error involved in every such fallacy we
encounter before using arithmetic. Otherwise someone could permanently paralyse all
calculation by composing an endless stream of such puzzles.

      If someone has always believed there is a god, and spends most of his time in the
company of others who either share his belief or at least do not challenge it, and if he can
never work out what is wrong with putative proofs that 1 = 0 but always assumes there
must be something wrong which brainier folk would be able to spot, he might reasonably
treat the occasional challenge to theism as like the ‘proof’ that 1 = 0.

      Atheist and agnostics sometimes condemn the religious as irrational for believing
what they cannot substantiate. Such sceptical evangelism needs more support than just
pointing out that there are no strong reasons for believing in the existence of gods. A
sceptic who wants to persuade a theist to change his mind needs to provide a reason why
the theist should reconsider his belief and confront the inadequacy of the various
arguments for theism. I can think of four reasons that might be given.

      First, there is the reason I gave a page or so earlier, that God is not, and gods are
not, in evidence. We should expect that, if there were any such beings we should keep
coming across them, just as legends say people used to come across them. Nor is it just a
matter of our not bumping into gods in the supermarket. The world doesn’t look the sort of
place that is likely to have a hidden god working behind the scenes. Theists who invoke
God as the basis of the moral order must notice that the world is at first sight not the sort of
place such a god might have been expected to produce. The unrighteous frequently
prosper while the righteous are often not rewarded. That is why the religious are driven to
postulate an afterlife where the injustices of this life may be redressed. Kant thought that
the only reason given for believing in such an afterlife is that it does redress those
injustices, and although many believers do not actually say that, they are unable to provide
convincing alternative reasons for thinking that there is an afterlife of the sort they look
forward to.

     Second, theological beliefs differ widely between cultures. There was a time when
Mathematics and Physics also differed between cultures, but in those subjects there has
been convergence. Why not in Theology too? Is it because there is no correct Theology
towards which belief could converge?

     Third, within any society differences in theology seem to depend largely on
upbringing and culture rather than on evidence and argument, and adherence to a religion
seems more like membership of a club than like holding a belief about cosmology.

    Fourth, when confronted by the forgoing arguments, theists, even intelligent, highly
educated theists, usually good at arguing a case, either reply with surprisingly weak
answers, or try to change the subject, often by trying to denigrate science.

     Those four arguments do not show that theism is false, but I think they do show that
theism cannot just be taken for granted. Thinking theists do need to produce evidence for
                                        Page 32
                                   What is Philosophy Chapter 7
                                      by Richard Thompson

their beliefs, and so far they have not done very well.

      It seems to me that there is an asymmetry between religious belief, and unbelief,
because religious belief always needs an excuse. On all the various sides of religious
debate, most participants are not familiar with the detailed arguments, especially the
arguments for other points of view. Usually there are excellent excuses for that lack of
familiarity. People have other more pressing things to do that examine the details of
arguments for positions that they consider untenable. I think that religious belief always
depends on some such omission or mistake. Unbelief, on the other hand, though it may
also in many cases arise from an incomplete or inadequate analysis, need not always do

      I therefore consider that the balance of the argument over religion is weighted heavily
towards non belief. That suggests the question why belief should be so persistent. The
excuses I have offered on behalf of believers suffice only to excuse hesitation about
relinquishing belief. They explain religion decaying only slowly, they do not explain its
persisting indefinitely.

      I think there is an analogy with the old mathematical question about a bath being
simultaneously filled from the taps, and empties through the plughole. The plughole
represents the erosion of religious belief by rational criticism, and the various factors which
make people disinclined to abandon religion correspond to bits of hair and other detritus
partly blocking the plughole. Yet despite those obstructions, the bath would still empty
eventually if the taps were turned off. What, in the case of religion, corresponds to those
taps ?

     One source is what is usually called ‘religious experience’. Numerous interesting
cases are described by William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience, delivered
as the Gifford Lectures in Edinburgh in 1900 and 1901. Contrasting those who have such
experiences with ordinary believers, James wrote:

            “There can be no doubt that as a matter of fact a religious life, exclusively pursued, does tend to
        make the person exceptional and eccentric. I speak not now of your ordinary religious believer, who
        follows the conventional observances of his country, whether it be Buddhist, Christian, or
        Mohammedan. His religion has been made for him buy others, communicated to him by tradition,
        and retained by habit, It would profit us little to study this second hand religious life. We must make
        search rather for the original experiences which were the pattern setters to all this mass of
        suggested feeling and imitated conduct.” (The Varieties of Religious Experience Longmans 1952
        pp 7 to 8. The word ‘speak’ indicates that the book was based on two series of lectures)

            “In its acuter stages every religion must be a homeless Arab of the desert. The church knows
        this well enough, with its everlasting struggle of the acute religion of the few against the chronic
        religion of the many, indurated into an obstructive ness worse than that which irreligion opposes to
        the movings of the spirit.” (op cit. p 112)

      One example James cited (op cit pp 9-10) was of George Fox, the founder of the
Quakers. Seeing a vision of ‘three steeple house spires’ Fox interpreted that as a
command from God to go to Lichfield. Just outside Lichfield, he was ’commanded by the
Lord’ to remove his shoes and leave them in the care of a shepherd. Once he was in
Lichfield ‘the word of the Lord’ commanded him to cry ‘Wo to the bloody city of Lichfield’ as
he walked up and down the streets and the Market. At the time Fox was puzzled at the
choice of Lichfield for denunciation, considering it no worse than any other city. Later Fox
discovered that in the time of the Emperor Diocletian a thousand Christians had been
                                         Page 33
                                  What is Philosophy Chapter 7
                                     by Richard Thompson

martyred in Lichfield, and he concluded that he had been sent to ‘raise up the memorial of
the blood of those martyrs’.

     James thought that religious experience always resemble pychotic episodes, and
that such experiences are usually the consequence of special physical states. However
he mistrusted a ‘medical materialism’ according to which explaining a mental state
discredits it.

     In this connection we need to distinguish two claims.

    (1) Explaining a mental state in terms of its physical antecedents shows that the state
is misleading or embodies a false belief.

     (2) The explanation of the experience shows that we are not justified in taking it its
face value just on the testimony of the person having the experience.

      (1) is largely wrong, but (2) is correct. James says that too, but I think he blurs the

     Note that I say that (1) is largely wrong.

      Suppose a religious experience purports to be the hearing of a voice, or otherwise
receiving a message, and it turns out that the experience arose solely from the internal
state of the subject’s body. In that case the experience is quite different from the ordinary
one of hearing a voice, which is produced by events outside the body, in which the words
that are heard are spoken by someone. Discovery that the words someone claims to have
heard were not in fact actually spoke by anyone, and that the experience was generated
by events in the subject’s body, shows that the experience was an illusion, and
undermines the usually presupposition that when people hear there is something to be

      Of course, even if someone has only the illusion that they hear a voice, it is possible
that what they think they hear is true, or is a true paraphrase of what someone would like
to say to them, but if that is so, it is a remarkable coincidence and not at all what we
should expect.

      Imagine someone describing strange events they claim to have experienced. After a
while we realise they are retelling parts of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. It is still
logically possible that the story should be true, but few would be willing to believe that.

      However James did concede, a little grudgingly, that religious experiences are not
self validating, and he realised that their resemblance to psychotic episodes make it
important to distinguish the two. Even if it was the voice of God that called George Fox to
Lichfield, most even of religious believers would hold that must be something else that
calls the serial killer to cut the throats of prostitutes.

      James suggested that the genuine religious experiences may be distinguished by
their consequences. Summarising, with approval, Catholic opinion he wrote:

           “The good dispositions which a vision, or voice, or other apparently heavenly favor leave behind
        them are the only marks by which we may be sure they are not possible deceptions of the tempter.”
                                               Page 34
                                  What is Philosophy Chapter 7
                                     by Richard Thompson
        (op cit pp 21-22)

     He then quoted St. Theresa referring to the ‘harvest of ineffable spiritual riches and
an adorable renewal of bodily strength’ that testified to the divine origin of her experiences.

     Note that James seems to be have considered only criteria for choice between
ascribing experiences to divine or to satanic agencies. He did not give any reason for
disregarding the possibility that they have no supernatural origin.

      James was misled by a naively oversimplified form of Pragmatism. Peirce, who
originated the doctrine, explained it thus:

           “the rational purport of a word or other expression, lies exclusively in its conceivable bearing
        upon the conduct of life; so that, since obviously nothing that might not result from experiment can
        have any direct bearing upon conduct, if one can define accurately all he conceivable experimental
        phenomena which the affirmation or denial of a concept could imply, one will have therein a
        complete definition of the concept, and there is absolutely nothing more in it.” (Collected Papers of
        Charles Sanders Peirce volume V paragraph 412)

     James much looser pragmatism amounted to the proposal that a proposition is true if
we are generally better off believing it than not.

      From Peirce’s point of view, we should expect a theory about religious experience to
help us predict who will have such experiences and under what circumstances, and what
the content is likely to be. James would have widened that to include any changes in our
lives consequent on our believing a particular explanation of religious experience.
Jonathan Bennett once aid in conversation that James sometimes came near to say that in
maters of religion, ‘we ought to believe what it’s nice to believe.’ Peirce renamed his own
doctrine Pragmaticism to distance himself from James’s popularisation of the woollier
cosier doctrine.

       The Nature of Religious Belief
       Although the theologians usually talk of an infinite God of unlimited power and
unblemished perfection, I think many rank and file believers, while they may use the words
‘infinite’ and ‘perfect’, have a woollier idea of someone just very powerful and very good.
Many years ago, in conversation with an itinerant Jehovah’s Witness, I suggested that the
labour of creation might have been greatly simplified. The Jehovah’s Witnesses teach that
a prolonged earthly struggle between the forces of good and evil will eventually culminate
in the great battle of Armageddon After the inevitable victory of the forces of Good, all
surviving members of the legions of Satan are to be thrown into a lake of burning pitch in
which they are completely consumed - the Jehovah’s Witnesses do not believe in eternal
punishment. Thereafter the good live in paradise forever.

     Wouldn’t it have been much easier, I suggested, for God to have created the good in
paradise straight away, without bothering about the earth, the wicked, Armageddon or the
lake of burning pitch?

      “Well” replied the Jehovah’s Witness with a patient smile, “If you were building a
house you’d have to start from the foundations and build up, you couldn’t start from the
roof and build down could you ?”

     “But if God were building a house, he could start from the roof and build down,” I
                                      Page 35
                                What is Philosophy Chapter 7
                                   by Richard Thompson


      “Oh no he couldn’t....OOO!!!” clapping hand over mouth, then continuing rather less
confidently “I suppose he could couldn’t he.... Look, it’s been ever so nice talking to you,
but I think it’ll soon be time for my dinner so I’ll have to go now, goodbye”

        I think that it often happens that when people talk of Almighty God, what they are
actually picturing is rather like one of the gods of limited power and variable morals such
as those propitiated by the ancient Greeks or by the Hindus. Let’s call such beings the
‘little gods’. The powers attributed to those little gods are the sort we’d expect to be
wielded by the technical sophisticates who might step off a visiting spaceship were one
ever to land. Indeed some people think the gods of ancient mythology really were
modelled on people who actually did step out of spaceships a few millennia ago, though
until such people visit us we’ll have very little reason to entertain that possibility. The little
gods sound like fellow creatures - possibly much more powerful than us, but still creatures
with emotions and ambitions like our own emotions and ambitions writ large, struggling to
control a world they share with other creatures of comparable power who are sometimes
their friends or allies, but often their rivals or even their enemies. Although there appears
to be no significant evidence that there are any such beings, the possibility that there might
be presents no great theoretical challenge for a naturalistic view of the world, though an
actual encounter with such beings might be an overwhelming practical challenge for us all.

      Non-Literal Interpretations of religious texts
      There is much in the Bible that we now find hard to believe if we take it at its face
value. Some material takes the form of explicit parables, stories told by some biblical
character to point a moral, and capable of doing that just as well whether they are actually
true or not. It has been suggested that good deal of other material that is presented in the
form of straightforward narrative may also be better similarly interpreted as an edifying tale
rather than as a chronicle of historical events.

       The Jewish rabbinical tradition recognises three forms of non literal interpretation.
Biblical passages may be interpreted not only as parable, but sometimes as midrash, or
as pesher.

      Midrash is a searching for the inner meaning or spirit of biblical passages. Some
commentators attached great significance to similarities or analogies between different
passages. Others looked for hidden meaning in the exact choice of words, and especially
in the appearance of redundant words that are not needed to convey the surface meaning
of the text.

      A pesher is an interpretation of a biblical passage as relating to current events. The
following light hearted example I found in the literature shows how it might be done, by
applying the technique to parts of the new Testament.

      “I take it you don't believe that Jesus actually walked on water, it is in fact a pesher of
the fact that Jesus had met the disciples on the Jetty, that is they had gone by sea and he
had taken the route by the shore as only a full priest would do. The pesher meaning of
changing water into wine is allowing uncircumcised Gentiles to receive holy communion at
the time when they had only come to receive baptism. The pesher meaning of 'loaves' is
Levites because it was they who served loaves at the Temple Sanctuary. Fishes were
celibate Gentiles of the lowest kind because they had been baptised in Sea Water.”
                                            Page 36
                               What is Philosophy Chapter 7
                                  by Richard Thompson

       There is a difficulty in defending any such interpretation, for even if the interpretation
fits the story, it may not be the only interpretation to do so. The interpreter is working in the
wrong direction. To interpret some text T as meaning M, we need some interpretative
procedure that starts with T and derives M. The Pesharist starts with his proposed M and
shows that it can be made to correspond to T. Only if no other interpretation corresponds
to T is it correct to conclude that M must be what T means.

      Beliefs as Parables.
      In Christian thought by far the most common alternative to the literal interpretation of
a religious doctrine, especially a passage of scripture, or a saying attributed to a god or to
a prophet, is to treat it as a parable. Some thinkers have extended the realm of parable to
include not only the parts of scripture that are clearly presented as parables but much, or
in some cases all, of the material that is normally considered straightforward religious

     Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976) noted that the various books of the bible were
composed for the edification of people whose view of the world was very different from our
own. They interpreted many of the common events of everyday life as actions of
supernatural powers. Both old and New testaments include many stories of miraculous
events the like of which we very rarely see reported today, and when we do see such
reports most of us are incredulous.

      Bultmann thought it unreasonable to expect modern men to believe such stories and
strove to create a demythologised Christian theology in which their miracle stories are
interpreted, not as chronicles of actual events, but as edifying stories that indirectly
represent spiritual truths about humanity, guiding us in making decisions and developing a
way of life. Under the influence of the existentialism of Heidegger, Bultmann thought we
should strive to achieve what he called ‘authenticity’. By that Heidegger had meant a self
knowledge in which we overcome the diverse distractions of day to day affairs to reach an
understanding of our place in the cosmos. Heidegger thought people most likely to achieve
that through a state of dread, which is the reaction provoked by confronting the inevitability
of our own deaths, and thus see our lives as a whole with death as the culmination.

     Unlike Heidegger, Bultmann thought that the Christian stories of the crucifixion and
resurrection are particularly helpful in achieving authenticity, which is surprising, since the
Christian promise of eternal life might be expected to make the prospect of bodily death
less dreadful. That assumes that the doctrines of the incarnation, the resurrection, and
eternal life are not candidates for demythologising. Bultmann himself did not wish to
demythologise the central Christian doctrines, but once we’ve started the process it is not
clear why we should ever have to stop short of demythologising all religious belief. Very
soon it was proposed to do so.

       William James
       While conceding the futility of trying to capture the various activities and experiences
called ‘religious’ by a simple definition, James was forced to adopt a criterion of some sort,
to decide that experiences to include in The Varieties of religious Experience. An easy way
out would have been to say he intended to discuss all experiences interpreted in the
context of any acknowledged religion, but James was able to devise more illuminating

                                           Page 37
                                   What is Philosophy Chapter 7
                                      by Richard Thompson

      He began by distinguishing first hand from second hand religion, and identifying
religious experience with aspects of first hand religion.

          “At the outset we are struck by one great partition which divides the religious field. On the one
      side of it lies institutional, on the other personal religion….one branch of religion keeps the divinity,
      the other keeps man more in view. Worship and sacrifice, procedures for working on the dispositions
      of the deity, theology and ceremony and ecclesiastical organisation, are the essentials of religion in
      the institutional branch,…In the more personal branch of religion it is on the contrary the inner
      dispositions of man himself which form the center of interest, his conscience, his desserts, his
      helplessness, his incompleteness.” (op cit pp 29-30)

         “In one sense at least the personal religion will prove itself more fundamental than either theology
      or ecclesiasticism. Churches, when once established, live at second-hand upon tradition; but the
      founders of every church owed their power originally to the fact of their direct personal communion
      with the divine: (op cit p 31)

          “Religion, therefore as I ask you arbitrarily to take it, shall mean for us the feelings, acts, and
      experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in
      relation to whatever they may consider the divine.” (op cit pp 31-32)

      James then worried that the word ‘divine’ might exclude atheist or non-theist systems
of thought such as Buddhism and Emersonian Transcendental Idealism. On the other
hand he did not want to so widen his definition that it should include ‘sneering’ attitudes
such as Voltaire’s. “There must be something solemn, serious and tender about any
attitude which we denominate religious” (op cit p 38)

          “The divine shall mean for us only such a primal reality as the individual feels impelled to
      respond to solemnly and gravely, and neither by a curse nor a jest.” (op cit p. 39)

       James thought that the interesting experiences should be ‘energetic’ rather than
listless (op cit p 40), and he therefore decided to concentrate on life affirming experiences
(op cit p. 41)

            “..for religion, in its strong and fully developed manifestations, the service of the highest is never
      felt as Yoke. Dull submission is left far behind, and a mood of welcome, which may fill any place on
      the scale between cheerful serenity and enthusiastic gladness, has taken its place.” (op cit p 41)

      He considered that a “happy state of mind” is common in the best examples of
religious experience, “happiness in the absolute and everlasting” as opposed to ”all mere
animal happiness, all mere enjoyment of the present” (op cit p 48).

      James thought religious experience involves a certainty that things are in a
fundamental way all right, a certainty does not depend on any rational argument or
testable hypothesis of the sort generated by the sciences. When such arguments appear
in religious thought they are secondary to the experience, either rationalisations of it. Or
part of the second hand institutional religion.

      That suggests that religion, or at least the examples of primary religion James
considered, may be primarily wishful thinking, although James himself did not put it like

     His criteria certainly define an interesting class of experience, and the profusion of
examples he finds show that much religious belief involves sort of experiences of that sort,
but we must guard against letting his examples lead us to conclude that all religion has to

                                                 Page 38
                               What is Philosophy Chapter 7
                                  by Richard Thompson

be like that.

      Arnold, Braithwaite and Toulmin
      Matthew Arnold defined religion as ‘Morality tinged with emotion’ and under his
influence R. B. Braithwaite suggested that the entire body of Christian belief could be
regarded as a gigantic parable to illustrate a morality based on love. Having thus
convinced himself it was possible to be a Christian without committing oneself to the
existence of any non-physical God, he was baptised into the Church of England after
obtaining a special dispensation from his bishop to omit the affirmation of belief in the
creed, which is usually expected of those baptised as adults; he was allowed to substitute
an affirmation of his belief in ‘the Christian Faith’. The joke about Braithwaite was that
when he recited the Creed in the College Chapel he just omitted the first two words.

       In The place of reason in Ethics (chapter 14) Toulmin said that religious questions
are all what he called limiting questions. By ‘limiting question’ he meant a question still
pressed in the face of everything that could be offered as an answer. One example is the
repeated demand for yet more explanation in the popular cosmological argument. Another
would be someone’s demanding a justification for basic rules of morality. Toulmin thought
it to be the function of religion to induce acceptance of the basic rules that are challenged
by limiting questions. Religion also helps to reconcile us to particularly distressing events.
Toulmin did not think that religion provided any logical justification of morality. ‘morality is
not to be contradicted by religion’ (op cit p 219) ‘Ethics provides the reasons for choosing
the ‘right’ course: religion helps us to put our hearts into it.’

      One aspect of religious discussion that fits in with Toulmin’s account is the odd way
facts are often used. Religious apologists often cite events that appear to support their
views but usually deny that that belief is capable of being refuted by unfavourable
evidence. Some years ago there was criticism of an appointment of Archbishop of York -
I seem to recall that the man’s name was Jenkins. He was much criticised for referring to
the resurrection as ‘a conjuring trick with bones’. When, shortly after his installation, York
Minster was struck by lightning, some, including my mother, considered that a sign of
divine disapproval of the appointment, but I doubt whether mother would have considered
the absence of lightening a sign of divine approval.
      On 13 June 2005 the Midlands free newspaper Metro reported some comments by
a father John Sheehy, about the stabbing of Abigail Witchalls, which left Mrs Witchall’s
paralysed. At the time Mrs. Witchalls was three months pregnant, but the foetus appeared
to be unharmed. Fr. Sheehy said ‘It’s an encouragement to keep on praying, isn’t it’ I think
it most unlikely that, had Mrs. Witchall’s not survived, Fr. Sheehy would have thought that
a reason not to pray. Not long before the attack on Mrs. Witchall’s another pregnant
woman was attacked with fatal results both for her and the child, so an example of the
failure of divine benevolence was available for any theological inclined to take it into

     If religion is primarily a way of keeping our spirits up, it makes sense to concentrate
on cheering stories and play down the bad news, except that to do so undermines any
claim that religion tells us something true about the world.

      Yet stories can hardly offer great reassurance to people unless they confidently
believe them to be true. In their anxiety to remove the difficulties in justifying religious

                                          Page 39
                               What is Philosophy Chapter 7
                                  by Richard Thompson

belief, Braithwaite and Toulmin have left no basis for such confidence. Although religion as
they present it may be a source of many reassuring words, it is hard to see why anyone
should actually be reassured by them. If such reassurance is be possible, it will be only for
people who can achieve a sort of split mind, adopting the non cognitive approach when
denying that there is any need to support religious belief with evidence, but slipping back
into the traditional meaning of religious terms when seeking comfort from the supposed
presence of a caring deity. That might work for someone brought up as a believer who
eventually comes to have doubts. For such a person the religious words may still have
the emotional force they acquired when they represented supposedly well justified beliefs
about the way the world is, and the novel non-cognitive analysis may come into play only
when the question of justification is raised. I suspect someone brought up as a
Toulmininian or Braithwaitian Christian would find no more consolation in its doctrines than
in Grimm’s Fairy tales.

      Sometimes religious doctrines are said to be ‘not literally, but symbolically true’. In
that context ‘symbolically’ seems to refer indiscriminately to any non-literal interpretation.
Talk of ‘symbolic truth’ may amount to no more than saying that reading scriptures and
taking part in ceremonies puts people in a state of mind where they can think or work
better than before. Possibly those activities do have that effect on some people, but if so
the beneficial effects are unlikely to be confined to the practice of just a single religion, but
the word ‘true’, with its suggestion of accurate and unique correspondence with the facts,
cannot simultaneously be applied to all religions..

       Such non literal interpretations of religious belief reduce the believer’s burden of
justification, but only at the expense of weakening the reassurance that religious belief can
provide for believers who want some reason for thinking they are on the winning side in
life, or if not in this life then in the afterlife.

      Interpretations of religion like those of Braithwaite, Toulmin and the proponents of
‘symbolic truth’ can make sense of our using religious stories to point a moral, but are still
insufficient to explain why anyone should take the further step of having a religion. The
story that best illustrates one point may well not come from the same religion as the story
that most aptly illustrates another problem, and many instructive tales may not come from
any religion but from history or from the newspapers.

      Religious people often claim that the standards we apply to beliefs about ordinary
matters of fact do not apply to religious beliefs since religion has ‘its own sort of logic’, but
the only indication we have as to what that logic might be, is the suggestion that it
somehow validates the normal reasoning of the religious. However it will not do for people
to make up any rules they like to govern the use of a set of terms. For instance suppose
we introduce the term ‘Thurgle’ by specifying that its use is governed by the following two

     1. Anything I enjoy eating is a Thurgle

     2. No health risks attend the eating of Thurgles.

     I seem to have ensured myself a congenial and healthy diet just be defining a word.

    In general there are two aspects of the logic of any term: the rules specifying when it
may be employed, and the conclusions that may be drawn from its use. The evidence
                                       Page 40
                               What is Philosophy Chapter 7
                                  by Richard Thompson

required to support any proposition must be sufficient to justify any conclusions we deduce
from that proposition. In particular if ‘The Universe is ruled by a benevolent God’ is
supposed to imply that the universe is fundamentally a friendly place where things will
eventually turn out for the best, then the belief in God must be supported by evidence
strong enough to support that optimistic conclusion. Optimistic theologians are prone to
assert the conclusion without providing the evidence. As John Wisdom once put it in a
different context (in a lecture) “They attempt to combine all the invulnerability of Logic with
all the bite of fact; this is where the muddle is”

      Religious belief seems often to be as much a matter of attitude as of belief. Suppose
a voice of thunder spoke from a cloud claiming dominion over us and our universe, and
making commands. How should we react? By prostrating ourselves in worship, or by
raising two fingers?

      Prostration might be a prudent first move, but what afterwards? Should our
submission be permanent, or just part of a strategy to buy time while we make ready the
nuclear missiles? If we decide that resistance is likely to be ineffective, at least for the time
being, should we submit internally as well as externally, schooling ourselves to love the
source of power, or should we bide our time and watch for an opportunity to control or
destroy it? Complete submission, internal as well as external, would be acceptance of the
alien intruder as God, while the various strategies of resistance would treat it as a fellow
creature. The difference in reaction would probably rest in part on different assessments of
the facts, but would also be in part be a difference in attitude. It does seem that, up to a
point, we may each decide whether or not there is a God by deciding whether there is
anything we are willing to worship.

      Often when religious people discuss their beliefs with unbelievers they seem,
metaphorically speaking, to have their fingers crossed behind their backs. They avoid
arguments, change the subject, use ad hominem arguments, or say ‘science can’t explain
everything’ when what science can or can’t explain wasn’t the subject of conversation.
Such discussions remind me of adults who are pretending to believe in Santa Claus talking
to children who are starting to have doubts. As the children grow older and wiser it turns
into a game in which both sides know what the score is, and know that the other knows.
The child tries to find a question that will stump the adult, who in turn tries to find an
answer of some sort to every question. A little smile flickers across auntie’s face as she
propounds some ingenious new elaboration of Santa’s remarkable powers. I sometimes
see just that smile of the face of friends who profess religious belief. But I’m not a child.
They don’t play the Santa game with me, why do they want to play the God game?

       Having puzzled about this for years I recently thought of a possible answer. The
conversation is conducted for the benefit of a third person, although often no third person
is present. The third person is the naive believer who thinks the traditional stories are
literally true, so the analogy is not with a discussion of Santa Claus between just an adult
and a sceptical child, but with a discussion conducted in the presence of a younger child
who believes completely in Santa, and whose enjoyment of the story must not be spoilt.
Religious belief usually helps to define some sort of community or social unit. Within such
a community there may be many different degrees and levels of belief. Those who do not
believe the stories to be literally true are anxious not to disturb those who do. Even some
people who doubt the entire belief system of a religion may want to remain members of the
community if all their friends and relatives belong to it. To avow their scepticism might
weaken their position in the group, so they need some way to avoid sceptical arguments,
                                            Page 41
                              What is Philosophy Chapter 7
                                 by Richard Thompson

and have built up an armoury of defensive evasions.

     Philosophical theists usually think of God as a mind or spirit, so discussion of mind is
a natural sequel to discussing religion, but the subject is much more than a footnote to
theology. Determining the nature of mind seems to offer the key to defining what it is to be
a person, and to have perceptions, beliefs and knowledge.

      We’ve already mentioned mind when discussing perception and knowledge, and we
considered on the relation of mind and matter when discussing phenomenalism, but in
those discussions knowledge was centre stage. It’s best to start again with mind the centre
of attention, while noting that what we have to say will have a bearing on the theory of
knowledge too.

     Since ancient times it has been widely believed that our mental life - sensations,
thoughts, feelings, and emotion, require the presence of something additional to the
tangible organs of the body. Terms such as ‘mind’, ‘spirit’, and ‘soul’, have usually been
used for that component. I shall stick to ‘spirit’ for the present, unless the context demands
another term, without making any prior assumption what spirit might actually be.

       It has often been supposed that it is the presence of the spirit that makes a human
body alive, and its departure that constitutes death. Although the spirit was always thought
of as something distinct from the body, it was not always thought of as non-physical. The
spirit was often thought of as like a gas or vapour that is distributed through the more
tangible bodily organs. The Greek  meaning ‘breath’ is the root of our words ‘psyche’
and ‘psychology’. The Greek atomists thought that the human soul was made of
particularly small atoms that could fit into the spaces between the atoms of the body. Plato
thought that the soul material could be cut into strips which were then formed into circular
loops. Strato thought that the soul was like breath. For the Stoics the human spirit was a
fragment of the pneuma, the creative fire from which the world had developed.

      Jewish folklore told of golems, clay figure into which their makers breathed the breath
of life. See the book of Genesis, chapter II verse 7. Although the Christian tradition
favoured an immaterial spirit, the idea that spirit might be a diffuse form of matter
reappeared in Hobbes in the 17th century. It appeared again around 1900 when psychical
researchers conducted experiments to try to weigh the soul. People who were about to
die, presumably particularly keen psychical researchers, for the subjects were volunteers,
were each put in a special bed that formed one pan of a gigantic weighing machine, and
the weight was taken hourly. The object was to see if there were a sudden drop in weight
around the time of death as the spirit supposedly left the body, but no such sudden change
was observed.

     In the eighteenth century Joseph Priestley (1733-1804), a dissenting minister best
known as the chemist who discovered oxygen, suggested that our mental powers arise
from the structure of the brain and do not signify the operation of any non-material entity.
He believed in life after death, but thought that was achieved by the original body being
reconstituted. He thought there was a God, but no Holy Spirit, and no incarnation.

     Body-Mind Dualism
     Descartes, often described as the founder of modern Philosophy, believed that
                                          Page 42
                               What is Philosophy Chapter 7
                                  by Richard Thompson

everything that exists must fall into one of two categories of being: it must be either Spirit
or Matter. That view is called Body-Mind Dualism, usually just Dualism. So let’s start
there. Dualism is superficially very plausible. The mind is full of ideas which are intangible,
the body is only too tangible, so Mind and Body are quite different.

        ‘How different?’ is the first question. Dualism doesn’t hold just that mind and matter
differ rather a lot, like a sewing machine and a baked Alaska. Dualism states that mind and
matter are different types of entity. Body is defined as tangible and having a position in
space, while spirit is intangible and not in space. Thus it doesn’t make any sense to ask
where a mind is, or how big it is. As we noted above it is possible to believe that mind or
soul are entities distinct from bodies, but still made of some form of matter. That view is
not dualist, but a form of materialism.

      If mind is immaterial and intangible it is hard to explain how a mind can be
associated with a body. There can’t be a physical connection such as that asserted by
saying the mind is inside the body, or circles around or hovering over the body, because
those are spatial relations. Cartoons showing a ghost floating just above someone’s head
do not illustrate dualism, but provide an excellent illustration of a vulgar materialist
misunderstanding of dualism, talking about a disembodied mind while actually thinking
about a disembodied body.

      When we are aware of another mind it is usually, in my experience always, through
an encounter with the associated body. The encounter may be indirect, when we read a
letter from someone or talk to them over the telephone, but any interaction with someone
else’s mind requires some bodily activity by both of us That is a serious problem for
dualism since once a mind is associated with a body, that mind seems to have a spatial
location. Furthermore many mental events seem to be associated with particular parts of
the brain, although I gather that what we regard as a single mental event may be
associated with simultaneous activity in several parts of the brain making it hard to assign
a precise location to a thought or feeling. However even if we cannot say precisely
whereabouts in a body the mind is it could still be given an approximate spatial location by
saying that it is somewhere in the body in question. Although the analogy is not perfect, we
say the nervous system and the blood system are located in the body, even though they
are diffused all through it. However that does not answer Descartes completely, since
another strand of his argument was that the mind doesn’t have physically distinguishable
parts; we can cut a limb from the body, but there’s nothing similar we can do to the mind.
Since Descartes wrote, doctors and research workers have established connections
between various mental capacities and specific regions of the brain, and between various
types of mental event and the corresponding types of mental event Yet even if he had
known of those correlations Descartes might well not have been persuaded, as I suspect
his point was that our subjective experience has no spatial parts.

       There seem to be two ideas here; spatiality as the possession of spatial parts, and
spatiality as having a spatial position. The case for denying spatiality to the mind is
stronger in the first sense than in the second. Yet, if lack of spatiality is to support
dualism, mere lack of spatial parts seems insufficient, because some physical properties
are properties of an object as a whole rather than of its individual parts. A picture that
illustrates hope in the midst of fear, may not be capable of being cut into two pieces, one
illustrating the hope, and the other the fear. A diffraction grating functions though the
interference of light reflected from different parts of the grating and so, taken as a whole,
has properties not localised in any part of it.
                                           Page 43
                               What is Philosophy Chapter 7
                                  by Richard Thompson

       Some dualists have suggested that the physical world is deterministic. Descartes
seemed to think so, regarding our bodies as machines. Yet that seems to imply that
mental events are determined by physical events. Imagine Simon deciding to feed the cat.
Simon’s legs straighten at the knees so that he stands up, his left arm extends to grasp the
tin of cat food, his right hand pulls off the top, the muscles of his left hand flex to turn the
tin over so that the food falls out into the cat dish. His lips move, his vocal chords oscillate,
and the sounds ‘foodikins for daddy’s sweetie pie’ resonate around the house. One who
believes that the material world is deterministic must regard all the events in that story as
determined. If there is a separate decision at the mental level wthat is not physically
determined, what is there for that decision do? The verbal utterances in which we proclaim
our decision, and the facial expressions and gestures accompanying the words, as well as
all the physical actions that implement the decision, are supposedly determined. The
accompanying mental event can be no more than a sort of imprint made by the physical
events on the mental - recording the events, not producing them. Such a picture could
strictly speaking be reconciled with dualism, but it would be the odd form of dualism known
as epiphenomenalism, what I sometimes call the ‘froth on the beer’ theory of mind.

     According to Epiphenomenalism mental events are not physical, but are always
consequences of physical events and dependent on physical events so that in themselves
mental events have no power to influence the course of physical events. Indeed some
research in neuroscience has suggested that the conscious decision to perform an action
often comes slightly later than the beginning of the chain of nerve impulses that initiate the
action. That suggests that the mental event we call a decision to act may indeed be
produced by the physical act that it seems to initiate. That offers some support for the
epiphenomenalist thesis that mental acts have no power to cause things to happen.

      One often encounters a strange reluctance to accept epiphenomenalism. I think that
reluctance sometimes arises from a confused idea of cause. For example, in Problems of
Mind and Matter (CUP 1934) John Wisdom argued that, although physical events are
often partial causes of mental events, they can never be the whole cause.

     Wisdom prefaced his argument with an analysis of cause into occasion and
conditions. Taking the much overused example of a match lighting when struck, the
occasion of the math lighting is its being struck. The conditions are the circumstances in
which striking the match does light it. The match is dry, the striking surface is not
completely warn down, the surrounding atmosphere contains enough oxygen to sustain
combustion, but not so much that the entire match flares up in a mighty conflagration.

     Wisdom thought that a full explanation of an event must include both the occasion,
and the conditions.

      He conceded that physical events (usually events in the brain) often occasion mental
events, but he thought that when the occasion is physical, at least some of the conditions
must be mental. He though that must be so because there has to be a generic
resemblance between cause and effect. I’m not sure precisely what constitutes a generic
resemblance, but think Wisdom meant cause and effect must be at some very abstract
level of the same kind. He illustrated his thesis with numerous examples, but did not
support it with any other argument, so it seems open to say that the causing of mental
events by physical events is an exception to his principle, so that principle is false.

                                           Page 44
                              What is Philosophy Chapter 7
                                 by Richard Thompson

     Wisdom also argued that, if some physical events produce mental events, all
physical events must do so. That arose from a belief that ‘supremely generic characters
are neither (1) gained nor (2) lost’ in any causal change (op cit p 94). ‘Supremely
generically similar’ seems to be defined so that all physical events are in one equivalence
class, and al mental events are in another, so the assumption looks like Wisdom’s
conclusion in disguise.

      Occasionalism has nothing to do with Wisdom’s analysis of cause. Among early
Cartesians a group called Occasionalists denied that there is any interaction between body
and soul, suggesting instead that divine intervention co-ordinates mental and physical
events. They believed that God arranges that my decision to pick up my pen coincides
with the movements of my arm and hand required to do so. The mental and the physical
were sometimes compared to two clocks that show the same time because they were
originally set to the same time and have remained synchronised without further

       Detecting Minds How can we tell whether a body is associated with a mind, or
whether it is mindless? The obvious clues are speech, gesture, facial expression, pulse
rate, temperature, posture. Yet those are all physical properties of the body. How does a
dualist infer from those physical events that there is a non-physical spirit associated with
the body? If, like Descartes, he thinks the body is a machine he ought to accept that the
observed activity of the body is just the natural outcome of its physical mode of operation.
What difference would a spirit make? Descartes clearly needed to make some room for
the mind to influence the body so he suggested that body and mind might interact in the
pineal gland, since he couldn’t think of anything else the pineal gland might do. But that
hypothesis would be unless it somehow qualified physical determinism, and if it did it
would weaken Descartes dualism by blurring the distinction between body and spirit,
because if the mind acts in the pineal gland it seems thereby to acquire a position in
space, yet for Descartes the defining quality of spirit is that it has no spatial position.

      What sort of physical events require a spiritual component, and how could the spirit
contribute to them? There seems to be a great difference between knowledge of other
people’s minds, and knowledge of our own. We seem to have a direct awareness of our
own mental life. The dualist would say that is because the subject that has the awareness
is the spirit. However we have no such direct experience of any spirit other than our own,
so it appears that for all we can tell ours might be the only mind there is. That is the
problem of our knowledge of other minds, that we seem to know other minds in a quite
different way from our own. It is a problem for any theory of mind, not just for the dualist,
but it seems to be particularly acute for the dualist, since a dualist considers that
knowledge of one’s own mind involves a spirit knowing itself, while he believes that
knowledge of another mind involves inferring the state of that mind from our observation of
the associated body. By contrast, a materialist holds that knowledge of our own minds and
knowledge of other people’s minds both involve observing bodies; the difference is just
that when we observe out own bodies we can do so in two ways, both through our sense
organs in the same way the we observe anyone else’s body, but also directly through our
nervous systems without involving the external sense organs.

       Another difficulty for dualism is that it cannot account for a mind’s being always
associated with the same body. One would expect that if dualism were true minds should
either be capable of existing without bodies or at least sometimes move from one body to
another. But there is no convincing evidence that any such movement occurs. Mediums
                                          Page 45
                                   What is Philosophy Chapter 7
                                      by Richard Thompson

produce messages purporting to come from the dead, and some investigators claim to
have induced people to remember past lives under hypnosis (hypnotic regression), but
most of the recorded cases are quite unconvincing, and even the few that look interesting
are inconclusive.

     Descartes thought that humans are the only physical beings with minds, and that the
other animals are only machines, with no souls and therefore no minds. That view seems
to be a serious oversimplification. Some animals display emotion, they can learn to
recognise physical objects, people and patterns in their experience, and can also learn to
do certain things in certain situations, like coming when they are called. All those are
considered to be mental attainments when observed in humans, so that if animals can do
such things without having minds, humans shouldn’t need minds to do them either.

      Anyone maintaining that personality depends on possession of a soul, a discrete
entity associated with, but distinct from, the body, must address the problem of stating
when the soul is acquired. There is no plausible answer to that question, since the
combination of qualities we recognise as constituting a person develop gradually in the
early stages of life, and often fade away gradually in old age without their being in either
case a sharp dividing line between person and non-person. As Stephen Pinker put it:
      “The closest event we can find to a thunderclap marking the entry of a soul into the world is the
  moment of conception. At that instant a new human genome is determined, and we have an entity
  destined to develop into a unique individual. The Catholic Church and certain other Christian
  denominations designate conception as the moment of ensoulment and the beginning of life (which, of
  course, makes abortion a form of murder). But just as a microscope reveals that a straight edge is really
  ragged, research on human reproduction shows that the "moment of conception" is not a moment at all.
      Sometimes several sperm penetrate the outer membrane of the egg, and it takes time for the egg to
  eject the extra chromosomes. What and where is the soul during this interval? Even when a single sperm
  enters, its genes remain separate from those of the egg for a day or more, and it takes yet another day or
  so for the newly merged genome to control the cell. So the "moment" of conception is in fact a span of
  twenty-four to forty-eight hours. Nor is the conceptus destined to become a baby. Between two-thirds and
  three-quarters of them never implant in the uterus and are spontaneously aborted, some because they
  are genetically defective, others for no discernible reason.
      Still, one might say that at whatever point during this interlude the new genome is formed, the
  specification of a unique new person has come into existence. The soul, by this reasoning, may be
  identified with the genome. But during the next few days, as the embryo's cells begin to divide, they can
  split into several embryos, which develop into identical twins, triplets, and so on. Do identical twins share
  a soul? Did the Dionne quintuplets make do with one fifth of a soul each? If not, where did the four extra
  souls come from? Indeed, every cell in the growing embryo is capable, with the right manipulations, of
  becoming a new embryo that can grow into a child. Does a multicell embryo consist of one soul per cell,
  and if so, where do the other souls go when the cells lose that ability? And not only can one embryo
  become two people, but two embryos can become one person. Occasionally two fertilized eggs, which
  ordinarily would go on to become fraternal twins, merge into a single embryo that develops into a person
  who is a genetic chimera: some of her cells have one genome, others have another genome. Does her
  body house two souls? For that matter, if human cloning ever became possible (and there appears to be
  no technical obstacle), every cell in a person's body would have the special ability that is supposedly
  unique to a conceptus, namely developing into a human being. True, the genes in a cheek cell can
  become a person only with unnatural intervention, but that is just as true for an egg that is fertilized in
  vitro. Yet no one would deny that children conceived by IVF have souls.” (Pinker The Blank Slate pp.

      As a matter of fact I do think there are ways in which humans differ from all other
animals in kind, not just in degree, though I don’t accept the dualist account of the
difference. Having raised the point I’ll digress to review the spectrum of animal mentality
and explain why I think it contains several discontinuities, one of which lies between
humans and all other animals.
                                           Page 46
                               What is Philosophy Chapter 7
                                  by Richard Thompson

      All living things can respond to their environments in a variety of ways. Animals, or
certainly those multicellular animals whose cells are differentiated into different organs, are
capable of doing things - pursuing and eating food, finding a mate and performing the
appropriate acts of procreation. Those are processes that involve goal seeking, where a
variety of tactics can be adopted, having in common the property of being likely to achieve
a certain result, and the process of using one tactic or another continues until either such a
result is obtained or the animal is distracted by other matters. Also many animals are
capable of communication, giving warning calls when predators are sighted, and
communicating the proximity of food, as bees do. However, much of this activity seems to
be hard wired into the animal; bees always use the same process for communicating the
proximity of food.

      I imagine Descartes’ picture of a machine was inspired by clockwork automata, in
which a predetermined sequence of events is set in train by the stimulus of pressing the
‘on’ switch. If so he must have thought all animal behaviour hard wired, though, as
dissection reveals that animal bodies are very complex, he must have thought there were
many different mechanisms in each body. A particularly graphic example of hardwired
behaviour is the dung beetle’s provision for its young. Having laid its eggs in a little hole it
collects some dung, shapes it into a ball, rolls it to the hole and pushes it into the entrance,
where it provides the young with food when they emerge from their eggs. However, if
someone delicately removes the ball of dung while the beetle is in the process of moving it
towards the hole, the beetle goes on as if nothing untoward had happened, making
dung-ball-rolling motions as if it still had a ball of dung and eventually going through the
motions of blocking the hole without any ball at all.

      However, unlike the dung beetle, a great many animals would notice such
interference, or would at least change their behaviour in response to it, in other words they
have feedback. That is one point of discontinuity; another is the ability of a great many
creatures to learn from their experiences and modify their behaviour accordingly. For
instance birds can learn that food is usually available on the bird table, or when a particular
person appears in the garden. Many animals can be taught to do things, and to respond to
calls or commands. Dogs, monkeys and elephants often perform quite elaborate tasks.
Some animals even seem able to improvise tools. A clockwork mechanism is not a
plausible explanation for such behaviour. I think that whatever human mental life is, we
must allow that some elements of mentality are present in many animals.

        Although mammals at least seem to duplicate some elements of human mental life, I
still think there is still a great discontinuity between humans and all the other animals we
know. Humans are the only ones capable of learning new ways to learn. The ability to do
that depends on our being self conscious. We are capable not just of learning, but,
sometimes, of knowing that we are learning and knowing how we are doing it. Animal
learning appears to be always instinctive and is always by simple induction. Only humans
have learnt that simple induction is often misleading and have been able to construct
alternative ways of assessing evidence, by realising that things that don’t appear similar to
our senses may nonetheless have something important in common. For instance it is only
by careful reflection that we realise that the heating of water, the stretching of a string, and
the lifting of a weight are all similar in being examples of the transfer of energy. Because
we can criticise our ways of learning, and also criticise the ways we criticise our ways of
learning, and so on indefinitely, our intellectual life is in principle capable of infinite
sophistication, so if we compare our intellect with that of the most intelligent of the other
                                             Page 47
                               What is Philosophy Chapter 7
                                  by Richard Thompson

animals, it is like comparing the infinite to the finite. I therefore accept part of Descartes
conclusion, that humans differ from the other animals in kind and not just in degree, but I
reject his justification of it when he said that the difference is that humans have a spiritual
component that the other animals lack.

     I think there are also other factors establishing a difference of kind between men and
animals. Our self consciousness involves awareness of ourselves and of our position in
the universe so that we can make deliberate attempts to control our environment and also
to control ourselves. In particular, humans alone can recognise the instincts that govern
much of their behaviour for what they are, and, where it seems appropriate, attempt to
control them. Humanity seem to be the only species in which individuals are capable of
viewing themselves in the third person as well as in the first person, and trying to
understand how they must appear to other people.

      Also it is only humans who can deliberately make rules and make and keep promises
and strike bargains. And only humans have the ability to see things from the point of view
of another person, and therefore to feel the sympathy that is sometimes stimulated by
such a perception. (Other animals do not seem even to know what species they are, so
that pets brought up by humans seem to accept humans as of their own kind.)

     How the various differences may be connected, if they are, I am not sure, though self
consciousness seems to be a prerequisite of them all. These points have an important
bearing on morality so I shall discuss them further in the next chapter.

      Personal Identity
      We usually identify a person by identifying the body. In itself that is no objection to
dualism, provided that the dualist believes that the same spirit is always associated with
the same body, and can account for that association without attributing spatial properties
to the animating spirit.

      However a dualist must allow for at least the logical possibility that a mind is not
always associated with the same body. Although he must concede that identification of a
body is the usual way to identify a person, a dualist cannot allow that is the fundamental
way of making such an identification. For Descartes the fundamental criterion of personal
identity is identity of spiritual substance.

       Having thus specified his criterion, the dualist needs to say how it can be applied in
practice. How can we check that Alice’s spirit is still associated with Alice’s customary
body, and has not transferred its focus to another body? Even when someone believes
that minds never actually do change bodies, and by no means all dualists do believe that,
the belief requires justification. It can only be tested if there is some other way of
identifying a mind besides identifying the associated body. Some exclusively mental
criterion of personal identity is required to make sense of dualism.

     Locke thought personal identity was continuity of consciousness and especially of
memory. He imagined a ‘mind swap’ in which the attitudes and memories of one man
become associated with the body of the other and vice versa. After the change, Locke
argued, the mental criteria would override the physical. The body that can describe
Simon’s past life should be identified with Simon, even if it is the body that we formerly
regarded as Anne’s.

                                          Page 48
                               What is Philosophy Chapter 7
                                  by Richard Thompson

     Locke rejected Descartes’ view that personal identity is identity of mental substance,
because, he said, our idea of a substance is no more than a collection of the properties we
ascribe to it. He may even have rejected the notion of substance altogether. Sometimes he
seems to be doing so, and sometimes just to be saying that since we can only know
substances as collections of properties, the notion of substance is unhelpful. Whichever of
those views we take, mental substance cannot provide a foundation for personal identity.

     A popular objection to the analysis of personal identity in terms of memory invites us
to imagine a variant of Locke’s story of mind exchange in which there is a technique for
transferring memories from one body to another. Suppose it were proposed to us that our
memories be transferred to another younger and healthier body, and that afterwards our
present body, deprived of its memories, should be used for medical research in a way that
would involve intense pain lasting for a long time. Should we consent on the ground that it
would not be we who would suffer the pain?

      I do not think that story is a conclusive objection to the memory theory of personal
identity. Assuming we give the expected answer ‘no’, it still would not follow that our
answer shows that we don’t believe that personal identity depends on memory. We might
hesitate to accept the memory transfer because we have lingering doubts about the
reliability of the technology, so that we aren’t completely confidant that if we choose to
change bodies things would work in the way the doctors claimed. Let us alter the story by
supposing that memory transfers were common and known to be reliable, and that
someone had grown up in a society in which they were commonplace, and had already
experienced several transfers that were unproblematic in that no experiments were
performed on the vacated body. Such a person might well then agree to experiments on
one of his surplus bodies, especially if he was not asked to consent until he was already
happily inhabiting another body. As we are not in that position it is hard to draw any
conclusion from the story.

      Such thought experiments, in which we are asked what we’d say in hypothetical
circumstances that never actually arise, are quite common in discussions of mind. It is not
clear how much weight should be placed on them. Although I do not think that our possible
reactions to the possibility of mind exchange refute the theory that personal identity
consists of a continuity of memory, I am still unsure that the theory is tenable. Our concept
of personal identity works well in the world as we know it, where people don’t appear to
change bodies. If such events did occur we might need new concepts to discuss them.
Apparent body swaps might well persuade us to use continuity of memory and
consciousness as the criterion of personal identity, but even if that is true it doesn’t follow
that we already do use that criterion in this world, where people don’t swap bodies.

       Ayer rejected the memory criterion in favour of bodily identity, doubting the possibility
of finding any link between all the events in the consciousness of one person, save their
link to a particular body. He argued that memory is insufficient, as many mental events are
not reminiscences and it is hard to see how they could be tied into bundles each
containing ones that are. He thought that as there is no evidence that people actually can
swap bodies there is no need to distort our analysis to leave room for that bare logical

     However linking mental events by memory does not require that each event E should
be associated with a memory event M that took place at the same time that E occurs. The
memory that binds E into our mental fabric could be a subsequent memory of E itself. If we
                                        Page 49
                              What is Philosophy Chapter 7
                                 by Richard Thompson

remember E at the same time that we remember F, then E and F are events in the same
mind. Even full memories of E and F may not be necessary; it might suffice to remember a
time when we remembered both E and F in detail even though now our memories of those
events are quite hazy. Nor is it even necessary for every single mental event to be
remembered as a separate component of our stream of consciousness. We could
remember enjoying a play by remembering that we watched the play and remembering
saying to someone afterwards that we enjoyed it; without even directly remembering the
enjoyment itself. Doubtless there are many events in our lives that we have forgotten, but
to establish a mental event as part of our consciousness it might suffice that it has the
potential to be remembered, or that even though we have forgotten it now, we did once
remember it and when we did it co-existed with many other memories, some of which we
still retain. Compare the case of physical events in our bodies. There are doubtless many
such events of which neither we nor anyone else is aware, and if they happened some
time ago the lapse of time precludes our ever becoming aware of them, but that does not
prevent their having taken place in our bodies. A criterion of identity may be perfectly valid
even though there are many cases where no one actually employs it to make an

      Still Ayer is quite right to point out that people never do swap bodies and that in
practice to identify a person is always a matter of identifying the body. If we meet someone
we haven’t seen for many years we may not be able to recognise him from his
appearance. An exchange of reminiscences may then be the way to establish his identity.
But that is a second best, and when we do identify someone in that way we always take it
for granted that he still has the same body, even though we did not at first recognise it. A
series of photographs showing the metamorphosis of the body we used to know into the
body that now confronts us would do at least as well as the recalling of shared
experiences, arguably it would be even better. So would analysis of DNA. Bodily criteria
and memory usually give the same answer to the question of identity. If they started to
diverge we’d have to decide what to do about it, and we might well develop a concept of
personal identity giving priority to memory as Locke suggests it should, but as Ayer says,
that doesn’t mean we already have such a concept.

      In Individuals P. F. Strawson had a good deal to say about the philosophy of mind in
the course of a general discussion of what he called Particulars. Particulars he defined as
things or events that we can refer to. Useful discussion of the world requires that we can
identify particulars. Demonstrative identification - by pointing something out, is useful and
important, but often not available. Even when some particular was originally introduced
demonstratively, we need to be able to re-identify it if we encounter it again. Unless the
particular in question has been continuously under our observation since our first
introduction to it, more will be needed for re-identification than the original demonstration.

     Identification by description is possible, but leaves open the possibility that there is
more than one particular answering the description. That difficulty might be avoided if the
description includes a reference to place and time. For instance ‘Human male born in 5,
Barbara Avenue Leicester in 1938’ is a description satisfied only by me.

      Particulars that exist in space and time and endure for a relatively long time with
relatively little change Strawson calls basic particulars, because they can be re-identified
without reference to particulars of any other type. Those particulars are what we call
physical objects. Particulars of other types can usually be identified only by associating
                                          Page 50
                              What is Philosophy Chapter 7
                                 by Richard Thompson

them with a physical object. The particulars we call ‘mental events’, such as sensations,
emotions and thoughts are identified by reference to a physical object that we call a ‘body’.

     Ascribing experiences to ourselves would not make sense unless we were prepared
to ascribe similar experiences to others, if not always then under certain favourable
conditions. In this context the primitive idea is neither body nor mind, but person, which is
a particular to which one can ascribe both physical and mental qualities.

      Strawson said that the Cartesian picture is incoherent. It distinguishes Body: the
subject only of physical attributes, and Soul: the owner of the objects of experience.
Strawson argued that in that picture there is nothing to own the experiences. It wouldn’t,
for instance, make sense to survey a collection of experiences and say ‘these are mine,
these others are Anthony’s and this third lot are Sheila’s, for to inspect an experience is to
experience it, so all the experiences we encounter are ours. There’s nothing that could be
put in the soul except the collection of its experiences. Hume made a similar observation.
He thought the self must somehow be analysed as a bundle of experiences, but could find
no marker to identify experiences as belonging to the same bundle - nothing to tie the
bundle together. He noted that if we introspect to try to find our souls all we actually find
are experiences. We don’t observe anything distinct from the experiences that could
experience them, nor any sort of glue to tie them together. Similar remarks also appear in
the Buddhist tradition.

      A person, argued Strawson, is not a combination of body and anima, his term for
whatever the non-physical component of a person might be. We identify ourselves as
persons, and also identify others as persons, so there is no question of having to bridge a
gap between perceiving people’s bodies and inferring that they, like us, have minds. There
is no gap since we perceive others as people, not as bodies.

      The traditional problem of other minds is ‘how can we know that this body has a
mind’. Strawson thinks he’s not so much solved, as dissolved that problem, because the
primitive concept is person, not just body and not just mind, so that our basic identification
is ‘this is a person’ from which it follows that the particular in question has mental

       Of course Strawson is quite right to say that that is what usually happens. We could
similarly argue that we perceive cars as cars and not chassis + bodywork + wheels +
engine, so there is no need to justify an inference from the sight of the external surface of
a moving vehicle, to the presence inside it of an engine. But it would be possible for
someone to make a light plastic chassis and sit inside where one would expect the engine
to be and pedal it. If we see something looking like a car move across the stage at the
theatre, there might well be someone inside it pedalling. The fact we don’t consciously
make the inference from car exterior to car interior does not show that there is no such
inference implicit in our thought. I’m reminded of Aristotle’s failure to see the problem of
induction, because he took it for granted that where we find some of the characteristic
properties of an animal, we’ll find all the others. When we identify a person, what we sense
is a body. The fact that we usually make no conscious inference from the presence of a
warm, moving, breathing human body, to the presence of a person, does not alter the fact
that all we actually perceive are the physical attributes of a person, so that whether or not
we actually make an inference, if the inference from body to person would not be
justified, neither would our conclusion that we are dealing with a person.

                                          Page 51
                              What is Philosophy Chapter 7
                                 by Richard Thompson

       There is an asymmetry between body and mind. A dead body could be identified as a
physical object even by someone who had never known the person of whom it is a relic, or
even by someone who didn’t realise it was the remains of a person, or thought it was an
artificially constructed body that had never been alive. On the other hand it would be
impossible to identify an anima except by associating it with a body. Strawson himself
recognised this when he said that material objects are the basic particulars, but he didn’t
seem to have accepted the full implications of that claim; he did not eliminate the problem
of other minds.

      The identification of a person is always effected by identifying a body, but identifying
a person is more than identifying a body. While, in practice, we rarely have difficulty
establishing that a body is a particular person’s body, there is in principle a logical gap.
The qualities we observe when identifying a person are all physical qualities, shape, size,
position, colour, attire, the rhythm of its movements, the sounds it makes. None of these is
a mental attribute. Strawson rules it senseless to ask ‘how do we know this person has a
mind’ but he can’t stop us expressing essentially the same question in different words by
asking ‘how do we know this body is a person, and not just a body?’ For any particular
body the tests people would carry out to answer that are all physical tests, heartbeat,
brainwaves, tests to find if the body is alive. We assume that live bodies are people, but
how do we know that live bodies are people?’ Strawson did not dissolved that question,
he just dodged it.

       The difficulties in dualism have persuaded many philosophers to adopt some
version of Monism, the view that there is just one sort of being. To take an extreme
example, Spinoza argued that, in a rather special sense of the words, there was not just
only one sort of being but actually only one single being. Spinoza called it deus sive
natura because he thought it could with equal correctness be viewed either as God or as
the whole natural order.

      Spinoza’s cosmology was developed in the context of the Aristotelian theory of
knowledge as a classification of things into natural kinds, each kind given a real definition
in terms of its essential properties. Knowledge was regarded as a collection of such
definitions, together with the propositions that may be deduced from them by syllogistic
inference. Although he rejected many of Aristotle’s conclusions, Spinoza still worked with
Aristotle’s concepts, and like Aristotle he thought that knowledge should not stop at
providing explanations for individual objects and events, but should also provide an
explanation for the world as a whole. He also agreed with Aristotle that such a
comprehensive system of explanation must ultimately rest on the existence of some
individual that is self explanatory.

     Spinoza thought that a self explanatory being must be such that its every property is
an essential property. He argued that there could not be more than one such being. For if
there were two such beings, A and B, each would in some way affect the other, so that A
would have some property that was caused by B and vice versa. At the very least A would
have the property of ‘co-existing with B in the same universe’ Thus A and B would each
have properties that were not essential to them; neither forming part of their definitions nor
deducible from those definitions. Thus neither A nor B would be self explanatory.

    Given that there is a unique self explanatory being, Spinoza argued that such a being
must incorporate all that there is, so every true proposition must be deducible from the
                                         Page 52
                              What is Philosophy Chapter 7
                                 by Richard Thompson

definition of that primary being. The single being could be regarded either as matter or as

     Viewed as matter the being appears to us as the natural world, and viewed as
thought it appears as God, which is why Spinoza called it ‘Deus sive natura’

     Since matter and God are different ways of viewing the same entity, to any aspect of
one, there corresponds some aspect of the other. To every physical object in nature there
corresponds a thought within God. That thought is the idea of the object in question. The
human mind is the idea of the human body, so that every mental event corresponds to
some physical event.

      Although Spinoza believed that the ‘Deus sive natura’ was the only substance that
could exist independently of anything else, he did not consider it indivisible, so it was only
in a very special sense that he believed that only one substance exists. He thought the
universe was composed of particles, which are usually grouped into subsystems, called
Finite Modes of existence. Such finite modes are the physical objects that make up the
material world, including human bodies. The subsystems that are living things are
characterised by a conatus, a tendency to maintain themselves in existence (by feeding,
avoiding danger and so on). Spinoza asserted that the whole system of particles was a
single substance because he thought that it was only when considered as a whole that it
was self explanatory.

       A more popular form of monism has been Idealism, the view that everything real is
spirit. Idealism certainly seems to sort things out so far as one’s own mind and body are
concerned. We are directly aware of our mental processes. Statements about physical
objects are treated either as oblique ways of referring to patterns in our sensory
experience, or as hypotheses that explain sense impressions in the same sort of way that
Campbell believes scientific theories explain experimental data. Although problems appear
when we try to carry out the Idealist programme in detail, at first glance it looks plausible
provided we go no further than our own minds and the material objects we ourselves

       However, other people’s minds are a quite different matter, and many are the
papers published by Idealists on the subject of Other Minds. Whatever we know about
other people’s minds is gleaned from observation of their bodies, sounds they make,
pictures they draw, letters they write, exclamations, gestures, facial expressions, heavy
breathing, erections and so on. Knowledge of other people’s minds is thus separated from
our sensations by two steps of abstraction:

     {our mental contents}  {material objects} {other minds}

       An idealist who believes that physical objects are fictions invented as a sort of
mental filing system to help us fit our sensations into memorable patterns, must conclude
that other people’s minds are fictions invented to help us order our (fictional) talk of a
special class of physical objects (the bodies of creatures that have minds), so other minds
appear to be doubly fictitious. At this point Idealism seems in danger of collapsing into
solipsism, with each of us thinking he is the only person there is and that the whole world
exists only in his own imagination.

                                          Page 53
                               What is Philosophy Chapter 7
                                  by Richard Thompson

       Even in the case of one’s own mind, things are not as simple as a superficial
inspection of idealism might suggest. How do we identify a mind? For the idealist, a mind
is a collection of sensations and other experiences, but precisely what collection? What is
it about my mental processes that make them mine? I never need to distinguish my mental
processes from anyone else’s because they are the only ones I experience, and of course
that is their common factor. But if we say that all mental events take place in my own mind,
I’ve lapsed into solipsism, yet if I reject solipsism, just saying that my mental processes are
the ones I experience sheds no light on the question as to how they have to be related to
one another to constitute components of the same mind. In practice a good clue to the
ownership of a mental event is the body with which it is associated. Even an idealist could
try to use that clue, but for him bodies are logical constructions out of mental events, so
he’d have to try to find in every one of his mental events some component that contributes
to his body image. While such a component may be detected in many cases it won’t be
there in every case; for instance in a dream I may imagine myself to have a body quite
different from my actual body.

       Absolute Idealism
       Hegel said that reality is just a single spiritual being, the Absolute. His theory is
therefore known as Absolute Idealism. The term is applied generally to idealists who either
think the world forms a spiritual unity, whether or not they think that the unity is a single
spirit, or who alternatively believe that it somehow encompasses more than one spirit.
Although it was never entirely clear what the Absolute was supposed to be, Absolute
Idealists clearly thought that if it did not include quite everything, it certainly included
everything of importance. Hegel said that the absolute was (1) Being, (2) the self identical,
and ‘at a higher level’ inference (3) Mind - which was the ‘highest definition’. Since the self
identical is everything, that seems a clear commitment to the view that there is nothing but
the absolute, and that the absolute is mind.

      Hegel’s thought was an attempt to reconcile belief in a unified spiritual world, in which
there is just one mind, with the obvious fact that there are many minds. I suspect he was
influenced by Spinoza, but unable to follow him because Spinoza had been denounced as
an atheist while Hegel wanted to reconcile his metaphysics with the Lutheran orthodoxy of
his native Prussia. He therefore opted for a community of individual minds. His
interpretation of History as the progress of the mind towards deeper consciousness of
freedom (something I’ll discuss in Chapter 9) suggests that he didn’t really think reality
actually is one, but hoped it would eventually become one by a rational state uniting
conscious beings into a single organism. Robert Whittemore suggested that Hegel might
be a ‘Panentheist’, meaning one who believes that the natural world is part of God, but not
the whole, as if the world were god’s body.

       The theory that there is only one mind would certainly be harder to defend than
Spinoza’s superficially similar theory, for the Deus sive natura was not a single mind;
individual minds were modes within that entity. Supposing that reality consisted of just a
single mind. so that matter and separate individual minds were both illusions, who has the
illusion? How could there be mind on the one hand, and misleading sense experience on
the other, if reality is just a single mind? How could a self conscious being interact with
other self conscious beings if there were only one being? The one mind would appear to
be suffering from a multiple personality disorder!

    It would be different if there were some mind-merging process in which we all drank
some together-juice capable of causing all our minds gradually to merge into one
                                         Page 54
                               What is Philosophy Chapter 7
                                  by Richard Thompson

supermind that would at one and the same time be conscious of A’s lustful thoughts, B’s
perplexity about complex numbers, C’s plans for a dinner menu, and D’s realisation of his
inability to suppress an impending sneeze. But there is no together juice and such things
just don’t happen. Other people are always to varying degrees inscrutable. Talk about the
One Mind is just a pretence that problems might be magically solved. The Absolute
Idealists skirted round the difficulty, saying that the world is somehow a unity, without
denying the existence of individual selves. The Absolute seems to have been more a
rhetorical flourish than a serious explanatory concept.

     Having denied the existence of matter, Absolute Idealists have to explain how we
come to suffer from the illusion that there is such a thing. Hegel does not appear to have
given much thought to the question, apart from saying that we are misled by sense
experience. He had little regard for Berkeley, who came near to phenomenalism, which is
the most plausible idealist account of matter.

      Of the later Absolute Idealists F. H. Bradley came nearest to asserting that there
exists only a single individual and really meaning it. He marshalled a battery of skeptical
arguments in favour of rejecting common sense beliefs, taking his attack beyond the usual
skeptical targets of the existence of matter, space, and time, and denying the reality of
anything individual, including even facts. By individual he meant anything less than reality
as a whole, maintaining that nothing unconditionally true can be asserted of anything less
than the Absolute. Of the various arguments he produced I confine myself to those about
propositions in the subject/predicate form, and about relations.
      Bradley held that all subject/predicate propositions are identities, and that all
identities are either false or vacuous. He claimed that ‘A is B’ is equivalent to A = B. Faced
with the fact that subject/predicate propositions are not usually in the form ‘A is B’ he said
that was because they are incomplete. For instance ‘All squirrels are mammals’ does not
specify what subdivision of mammals constitute squirrels. ‘Some mammals have tails’
specifies neither the subset of mammals referred to, not the subset of tailed creatures
constituted by mammals. Supply all the missing information and the augmented
proposition that tells the whole truth will be of the form A = B. In the case of Aristotle’s ‘A’
proposition, ‘All S is P’ an equivalent identity is available, for writing S* for the set of S
things, and P* for the set of P things, ‘All S is P’ is equivalent to ‘S*  P*’ which is in turn
equivalent to ‘S* = S*  P*’ , the set of S things is identical with the set of things that are
both S and P, but I doubt if that was what Bradley meant, and in any case there is no such
easy way to extract an identity from propositions in the other Aristotelian.

      To continue with Bradley’s argument, if A and B are not the same ‘A = B’ is false. On
the other hand if A and B are the same there is only one entity not two, so ‘A = B’ is still
false since it contains the false presupposition that A and B are distinct. Hence there are
no true identities and therefore no true subject/predicate propositions and therefore no
individual facts.

      Bradley’s argument about relations started with a distinction between internal and
external relations. The internal relations one predicate has to others are those that are
intrinsic to it, that is they are logically necessary. Thus ‘murderer’ implies ‘killer’. On the
other hand some relations are not logically necessary. If we discovered that all murderers
were interested in football, that would be an external relation. Bradley believed that all
relations should be internal. It follows from that that the world cannot be a collection of

                                          Page 55
                                  What is Philosophy Chapter 7
                                     by Richard Thompson

distinct individuals, for consider the sort of relations there are between different individuals.
I am the son of Helen and Dennis Thompson, therefore the predicate ‘Richard Thompson’
stands in the relation ‘son’ to both of the concepts ‘Helen Thompson’ and ‘Dennis
Thompson’ and there will be relationships of some sort between any two individuals, at
least something like ‘older than’ or ‘183 km to the North of at noon on 11th July 1923’. For
every relation to be internal every one of those would have to be logically necessary so
that the existence of any object would determine the existence and complete life history of
every other. I think the discussions in earlier chapters make it clear that the claim that all
propositions are logically necessary is untenable, so I shall say no more about that here.

      In contrast to Bradley, McTaggart believed in the reality of individual spirits, believing
that they might be developing towards a state of unity, a view with some similarity to
Hegel’s, though without the latter’s statism. I shall say more about McTaggart later.

      Another monist theory is Materialism, the belief that everything that exists is some
sort of material object. Materialists usually try to identify metal events with some sort of
bodily event. The form of materialism most popular today identifies mental events with
events in the brain. So although they believe that all that exists is matter, materialists do
distinguish the mental from the merely material, since they regard minds as sets of events,
not as material objects.

     People often find the identification of mental processes with brain processes very
implausible. Enjoying the scents in the rose garden seems completely different from
anything we’d expect to see if we opened someone’s skull and investigated events there.
But that is because observing a brain from the inside by experiencing one’s own
sensations and thought processes as we do when we enjoy the scent of the rose, is a
completely different operation from observing a brain, either one’s own or another’s, from
the outside by looking through a hole in the skull. There is no reason why the gardener’s
experience of colours and scents should not be the inside view of precisely the same
events that a neurosurgeon could detect by a brain scan.

     Strong arguments in favour of materialism are that mental events are only ever
detected in associations with physical bodies, and they are greatly affected by changes
taking place in those bodies, particularly by changes in the brain. Furthermore research in
neuroscience is gradually associating more and more mental activity with electrical and
chemical events in identified parts of the brain.

      McTaggart thought that although the arguments for materialism seem strong at first
sight, they do not survive closer examination because we know of matter only through
sense experiences, and sense experiences are mental events. Thus the existence of a
material world is doubtful, while the existence of the mental world is certain since that is
the world we know directly.
        “matter is in the same position as the Gorgons or the Harpies. Its existence is a bare possibility to
      which it would be foolish to attach the least importance, since there is nothing to make it at all
      preferable to any other hypothesis, however wild.” (Some Dogmas of Religion P. 95)

     I do not consider that a very serious objection to mind/brain identity. For even if we
grant McTaggart’s idealism, brains, usually regarded as physical objects, must for
McTaggart be some sort of conceptual artefact constructed out of mental events, so that

                                               Page 56
                              What is Philosophy Chapter 7
                                 by Richard Thompson

from his point of view ‘mental events = brain events’ need not assert materialism, but might
just identify mental events of two different kinds.

      Logical Behaviourism
      I once looked at an A. Level Psychology text book and discovered that it defined
Psychology as the study of behaviour. Logical behaviourism is the view that all thoughts,
beliefs, feelings, desires and emotions are patterns of behaviour. Verbal behaviour, what
people say and write, is of course very important, but there is other behaviour with an
important bearing on our states of mind, for example facial expression, posture, tone of
voice, muscular tension, blood pressure. Gilbert Ryle expounded Logical behaviourism in
The Concept of Mind.

     As we detect other people’s mental events by observing their behaviour, it seems
reasonable to try to analyse statements about their mental life in terms of that behaviour,
but such an analysis cannot be straightforward. There are many different behaviour
patterns in which any particular mental event may be manifested, so there’s no chance of
a one to one equivalence between propositions describing mental events and propositions
describing behaviour. Since some mental events may not be manifest in any actual
behaviour, a plausible behaviourist analysis would have to include potential behaviour

       There are interesting formal parallels between logical behaviourism and
phenomenalism. The logical behaviourist encounters difficulties at least as great as those
of the phenomenalist but also has to confront a peculiar difficulty with no analogue in the
problems of Phenomenalism. He has to present our knowledge of our own mental
processes as ‘really’ knowledge of our own overt behaviour. One has to concede that,
although it sounds odd, that is not always entirely implausible. Our introspective
knowledge isn’t always superior to other people’s inferences from our behaviour. The
logical behaviourists have commented that other people often notice that someone is
irritable or in a bad temper before the person concerned realises the fact, and sometimes
we can learn about ourselves by trying to see ourselves as others see us. Still although
the behaviourist’s analysis may fit aspects of our self knowledge, it cannot plausibly be
applied to it all. Most bridge players have a better knowledge of what cards they are
holding than their opponents, even after the opponents have heard the bidding. Ryle
thought that when we have introspective knowledge of our emotions or beliefs we might be
sensing a state of preparedness in our bodies for the appropriate physical expressions of
emotion, or reactions to beliefs. There may sometimes be an element of truth in that, but it
seems quite implausible as a general account of mind. What incipient physical action are
we sensing when we speculate on the truth of the continuum hypothesis? Like
phenomenalism, logical behaviourism has been abandoned in favour of vaguer and
therefore more easily defensible positions.

      Kripke said that mental and physical processes cannot be contingently the same
because there is no distinction between being aware of our own mental state (pain for
instance) and being in that state, so that if a mental state were a physical state, being
aware of either state would constitute being in the mental state, so it would be impossible
to be aware of the physical state without being in the mental state. Kripke concluded that if
the theory of mind/brain identity is true at all, it must be necessarily true. Although his
argument has at first hearing a glib plausibility I think it ignores several distinctions.

     First, one can be aware of the same thing in several different ways. For instance one
                                       Page 57
                                What is Philosophy Chapter 7
                                   by Richard Thompson

can be aware of an ice-cream by seeing it, or by licking it - when someone tells one to shut
one’s eyes and open one’s mouth and pushes in an ice cream he’d been holding behind
his back. So detecting a feeling of joy by feeling joyful, and detecting it by watching the
brain scan could be related like tasting the ice cream and seeing it.

       Second, I think there may be a general difference between awareness of a mental
state and being in that state. Certainly deliberating on one’s state of mind is not the same
as being in that state of mind, since one can be in a state of mind without deliberating on it.
Still, deliberating on one’s state of mind is a state of mind, and if states of mind are
identical to brain states, deliberating on one’s headache must be identical to some state,
even if not to the same state that constitutes being in pain. It has sometimes been
remarked that concentrating on one’s pain lessens its painfulness. Perhaps there is an
infinite sequence: (1) Pain
               (2) Deliberation on pain
               (3) Deliberation on deliberation on pain
               (N + 1) Deliberation on the stage N deliberation
       That model appears to imply that the contents of our minds are sometimes infinite. If
it did imply that, that would be a serious criticism of the model, but I do not think that the
implication is valid. Thinking about some X need not involve holding in our minds a full
description of X down to every last detail that we know about X; it suffices to have a few
conceptual cartoons, probably accompanied by a name or descriptive phrase for X. So no
single step in the sequence 1, 2, 3... need be infinite. However there is still a difficulty
because whole sequence would still be infinite even if each individual term is finite. But I
do not think every term need actually be present; any term could be present but the
presence of term N in the mind does not require the presence of term N+1, it suffices that
we should be prepared to admit term (N + 1) if occasion arose. If we deliberate on our pain
there are brain events corresponding both to the pain and to our deliberation about it. If we
are feeling particularly introspective we may say ‘Ah, I’m thinking about thinking about my
pain’ but we can perfectly well think about our pain without thinking about our thinking
about it.

     Necessity of Mind-Brain Identity
     Kripke had another argument to justify his thesis that mind/brain identity must, if true,
be necessarily true. He held that:
     (K1): if an individual is a material object, it is necessarily a material object, since there
is no possible world in which something that actually is a material object could be

     Kripke deduced from (K1) that: (K2): If mental events are identical with brain events,
they must be necessarily identical

      (K2) seems to present those who believe in the identity with a serious difficulty, for if
the identity is necessary, those who believe it might be expected to demonstrate it a priori,
and the a priori method should be the primary way of establishing it. For instance one
might try to show that propositions about mental events can be analysed in terms of
propositions about brain events. That would amount to substantiating a special case of
logical behaviourism, with all the difficulties of that position.

     However that assumes that propositions that are necessarily true can be known a
                                    Page 58
                               What is Philosophy Chapter 7
                                  by Richard Thompson

priori and although that is widely believed, Kripke does not believe it, so when he puts
forward (K2) it does not have that implication. For Kripke mind/brain identity might still be
true even if the only arguments that can be produced to support it are a posteriori
Therefore Kripke needs more than K2 to undermine mind/brain identity. His supplementary
argument is based on the notion of truth in possible worlds. He argues that since a
necessary statement is one true in every possible world, if we can describe a possible
world in which mind/brain identity is false it cannot be necessary, so that if its truth
implies its necessity, it cannot be true either. Kripke thought we can imagine possible
worlds in which mind and brain are not identical and therefore did conclude that the
identity is false. His argument turned on the supposed necessity of a material object being
a material object., so I shall now digress into a discussion of that theory.

     The Necessity of being a Material Object
     Consider: (K2) ‘If A is a mental object, it must be necessary that A is a mental object,
since there is no possible world in which something that actually is a material object, might
not be.’

     Admittedly  (F(A)  F(A)), but that holds for any predicate F, so more seems to
be intended than that. If A is a material object we shall locate it, identify it, and when
necessary re-identify it in the manner appropriate to a material object, making use of its
tangibility and allocating it a position in space. Anything identified by such a process will be
a material object, because material objects (defined as tangible individuals with a position
in space) are the only individuals that such a process could identify.

     However we could define something in a way that does not depend on its either
being, or not being, a material object. Consider

     (3) ‘The subject of my last conversation with Alice was a material object’

      There are many subjects I could have discussed with Alice, amongst them many that
are not material objects - Shakespeare’s sonnets, for example. Suppose that what we
actually talked about the weathercock on my neighbour’s garden shed. Someone who
retorts, ‘If the subject of your conversation was a material object, it was necessarily a
material object’ seems to be asserting no more than: 
       [ (A is a material object)  (A is a material object)]
      while Kripke needs:
       [ (A is a material object)  (A is a material object)]

      If we defined mental acts in some way that implied they were physical, that would
entail that anything identified as a mental act by someone following that definition, would
therefore be physical. But suppose that the physicality is not part of any definition, and that
mental acts just are physical. Of course, once their physicality became generally
recognised, we might adopt a new definition making physicality part of the definition of a
mental act, but we shouldn’t have to do so. We could continue to identify mental acts by
introspection, and by listening to people’s conversations.

      That an individual is a physical object does not imply that we have to assume that
physicality whenever we refer to that individual. Picking out a mental event as ‘what I was
thinking ten minutes ago’ seems to me sufficiently like picking out an individual (possibly
physical, possibly not) in my example of ‘What Alice and I were talking about ten minutes

                                          Page 59
                               What is Philosophy Chapter 7
                                  by Richard Thompson

ago’, for the same conclusion to follow - such a reference leaves it open whether the
individual referred to is physical or not.

      Underlying all Kripke’s arguments is his notion of truth in every possible world. From
K1 he deduced that mind/brain identity cannot be true in some possible worlds and false in
others; it is either true in all or false in all. So his strategy is to describe some possible
world in which mental events are not identical with brain events, and conclude that the
identity is not necessary and therefore cannot be true. If that strategy is correct, then if we
could describe some possible world in which mental events were identical with brain
events, we could use the same logical principle to deduce that, as the identity is not
necessarily false, it is necessarily true. If we could describe both a possible world in which
mind/brain identity applies, and one in which it doesn’t, that would either refute his
underlying assumption that the identity thesis is logically determinate (= either necessarily
true of necessarily false), or discredit the whole apparatus of ‘possible worlds’ Yet there
are thoughtful people who believe the mind/body identity, so they have presumably
imagined that our world is one in which the identity is true. I believe that I can imagine
such a world. In what relevant way does that differ from imagining the identity of mental
events and brain events to be true in some possible world? The debate threatens to
degenerate into a pantomime exchange of ‘I can imagine it’, ‘No you can’t’, ‘Yes I can’,...

      Kripke’s argument cannot be sustained without a clear statement as to what counts
as describing a possible world. If we accepted any claim of the form ‘I can imagine a world
in which proportion P is true’ it would follow that every proposition is possible and, since
someone else could make the same claim about ~P it would also follow that every
proposition is possibly false, so that there would be no necessary propositions at all. So, if
it is not vacuous, a claim to describe a possible world must amount to more than just
saying ‘I’m thinking of non-physical mental events’; some detail must be required.
Religious stories and science fiction often tell of disembodied minds. We say we imagine
having thoughts and feelings without having bodies, but is that really imagining not having
a body, as opposed imagining not noticing our bodies? It is often said that we can imagine
watching our own funerals. As we looked down on our own corpse, our perceptions could
hardly be events taking place in the brain of that same corpse. Yet it can plausibly be
argued that if we imagine seeing something, we are implicitly imagining ourselves as
having some body, since seeing is performed with eyes. Thus anyone who believes
mental events are brain events could reject any putative description of mental events
occurring independently of a brain by saying that to imagine a mental event is, implicitly, to
imagine a brain too, even if no picture of the brain appears in our imaginings. After all we
can imagine seeing and hearing things without including our eyes or ears in the imagined
picture, but their active participation is still presupposed by that picture.

      ‘Possible worlds’ seems to be a very slippery concept. Suppose someone sought to
refute Goldbach’s Conjecture (that every even number greater than 2 is the sum of two
primes), by describing a possible world in which it is false. It might plausibly be argued
that, if true, Goldbach’s conjecture is necessary, so that if there is a possible world in
which it is false, it is false. But the possible world would have to be imagined in
considerable mathematical detail. It would be no use imagining news paper headlines
saying ‘Goldbach’s Conjecture refuted’, or a Maths textbook containing a sentence to that
effect. We’d need either (1) a counter example or (2) the deduction of a contradiction from
Goldbach’s conjecture. Either (1) or (2) would constitute a disproof of Goldbach’s
conjecture by which its falsehood would be known a priori, so the artifice of possible
worlds would be irrelevant; a proof is a proof in whatever world it is imagined to be stated.
                                          Page 60
                               What is Philosophy Chapter 7
                                  by Richard Thompson

      What sort of detail might be expected of the description of a world in which mental
events are not physical? If the story is to be part of a successful proof that mental events
are not necessarily physical, it must at the very least be told in enough detail to rule out the
possibility of anyone giving a rival description of a possible world in which mental events
are physical. A description that just says there are mental events without any
corresponding brains is therefore not enough, since someone who believed in mind/brain
identity could amend any such description by adding to it a references to a concealed
brain corresponding to every mind that appeared to exist without a brain, possibly
explaining why those brains are hard to observe. We saw something like that in the case
of the person who imagines seeing his own funeral, where I suggested that the story
presupposed we had the use of some brain, even though that brain was not under
observation. To rule out such an amendment we could try including in the story a
theoretical account of how mental events come about. If that account somehow excluded
the possibility of mental events being identical with brain events, a physicalist amendment
to the story might be impossible. So far as I know no such mentalist theory has ever been
produced. Even if one were, the physicalist need not reply by amending the dualist’s story;
instead he could produce a rival story of his own describing a possible world governed by
a rival theory embodying the mind/brain identity. Kripke would then have to decide which
of the rival stories established the possibility of the world it purported to describe. The
debate would appear to degenerate into a story telling competition, with no clear rules for
identifying the winner. Another possible rejoinder to any description of a supposed
possible world would be to say that what it describes is not a possible world but of a
possible dream. How should we tell the difference?

      Peter Carruthers discusses the matter in Introducing Persons P 152. Although
Carruthers doesn’t refer to Kripke by name except in the bibliography I shall, for ease of
exposition treat his remarks as a reply to Kripke. Carruthers says that Kripke’s argument
confuses an assertion of narrow scope that is true, with an assertion of wide scope that is
false. The wide scope assertion is:

      W: (each mental state is identical with some brain state )  (each mental state is
identical with some brain state)

     The narrow scope assertion is :
     N: (mental state Ms is identical with brain state Bs)  (Ms = Bs)

      Carruthers accepts N but rejects W. He argues that while we can imagine a possible
world in which mental events are not brain events we cannot prove that the mental events
imagined in that world are the same mental events that we experience in our world. So N
does not imply W and although Kripke’s argument requires W, he only provides reasons
for N.

      So far as I can tell, Kripke has not made any systematic reply to criticisms, so I’m
inclined to treat Naming and Necessity as a youthful frolic, of which he may well have

    A Computer Model and Strong AI
    Some materialists have suggested that people are like computers. The body is the
hardware and the mind is the software. To modern ears that is reminiscent of Aristotle’s

                                          Page 61
                             What is Philosophy Chapter 7
                                by Richard Thompson

claim that the mind is the form of the body, though whether a resurrected Aristotle would
have agreed is another matter. A consequence of the computer model of mind would be
that it should be possible to bring a mind into being by running the appropriate program on
any sufficiently powerful computer powerful.

       Alan Turing proposed what has come to be called the Turing Test as a procedure for
determining whether a computer system has achieved intelligence. He thought that
something is intelligent if it behaves intelligently. However a computer system will not in
the foreseeable future look at all like a human being, so that people skeptical about
artificial intelligence might be prejudiced by its appearance and refuse to accept signs of
intelligence even if it displays some. Its behaviour should therefore be judged
independently of its physical appearance. Turing proposed that judgement be based on
conversations conducted by text messages. A computer system would pass the test if
human judges, exchanging messages with correspondents some of which were computer
systems, and some of whom were other humans, could not distinguish the former from the
latter. Numerous conversational programs have been constructed, and some are to be
found in Internet chat rooms, where some human correspondents have been deceived for
long enough to invite computer programs to join them in carnal relations.

        Turing’s proposal was powerfully attacked by John Searle, who called it ‘Strong AI’
Searle argued that mental life could not be created by a computer program, because
mental events have a property that he called intensionality (not to be confused with
intentionality). Mental events have a meaning of their own, independently of any meaning
others may read into them. Data in a computer, on the other hand, has no meaning
beyond that read into it by its programmer or its operator. Searle developed the point bin
his famous Chinese Room argument.

     Searle imagined that an English speaker, whom I shall refer to as the operator and
who knows no Chinese, is installed in a room from which he communicates with the
outside world only by the exchange of sheets of paper. Inside the room he has two sets of
paper covered with Chinese characters, and also sets of instructions, in English, telling
him how to establish correspondences between characters on the two lists. From time to
time additional slips of paper bearing only Chinese characters are sent into the room. In
accordance with the instructions in English, the operator establishes correlations between
the characters on those pieces of paper, and generates new sequences of characters,
which he passes out of the room. In fact one of the operator’s lists of characters is a
Chinese dictionary, and the other is a story. The sequences of characters submitted to him
are questions about the story, and the sequences of characters he creates are answers to
those questions. With practice the operator might be able to reply quickly enough to
persuade people outside the room that he understood Chinese, so that Chinese speakers
might judge that he had passed the Turing test, yet he has ex hypothesi no understanding
of Chinese. Thus ability to pass the Turing test does not imply any understanding of the
conversation on which that pass is awarded.

      The Turing test is a simplified version of the system of meaningful interactions that
confirm out belief that other humans are intelligent beings. Of course, we do not usually
carry out tests to determine whether or not other humans are intelligent, We usually take
that for granted until something makes us doubt it. Still, when philosophers consider how
we can know of the existence of other minds, they usually seek an answer in people’s
behaviour, and especially in their verbal behaviour. Thus to shed doubt on the Turing test
threatens to strengthen the skeptical arguments about the existence of other minds.
                                          Page 62
                               What is Philosophy Chapter 7
                                  by Richard Thompson

       Several counter arguments have been used. First the operator is only one
component in the system. He could not carry on a conversation in Chinese unaided; the
ability to do so depends on his being part of a system including the Chinese Dictionary and
the set of English instructions, so the fact the operator does not understand Chinese does
not imply that no such understanding is displayed by the system as a whole.

      Second, can we be sure that the operator does not understand Chinese? It is indeed
specified that he does not do so when he enters the room, but a long time spent
manipulating Chinese symbols in accordance with the rules provided would certainly
provide some sort of knowledge about those symbols, such as the fact that some
characters occur more frequently than others, and that some characters often appear in
close proximity to others. Might he not eventually start to guess what the characters
meant? A set of rules sufficiently detailed and comprehensive to enable the operator to
answer any question at all, would very likely provide clues of some sort, especially to the
meaning of words for numbers and for logical terms such as ‘all’, ‘some’, ‘and’, ‘or’, ‘not’.
Consider, for instance, the sort of rules necessary to enable the operator to answer the
question (asked of course in Chinese) ‘How far is it true that women are generally more
interested in personal appearance, while men are more interested in status, but both
attach the same importance to etiquette?’ To answer that the operator would have to
select passages in which characters reveal their aspirations and find the proportions of
those passages concerned about status, appearance and etiquette. One can hardly
estimate a proportion without knowing that that is what one is doing. If asked ‘How many
people arrived that the party before the heroine’ where the text of the story did not record
the number but gave the names of the guests and the order of their arrival, it would be
necessary to pick out the names of the early guests and count them. Whatever language
one is using, one cannot count without knowing that that is what one is doing, and if the
result of a count has to be submitted as an answer to a question, the operator in the
Chinese room has sufficient information to deduce the meanings Chinese words for

      Searle suggested elaborations of his story in order to answer the various objections,
but I find that the colourful detail of the Chinese Room argument makes it hard to assess
its validity, especially as the story becomes more elaborate. It seems to me that Searle
sacrificed logical cogency to superficial plausibility. Eventually it becomes hard to
distinguish attempts to defend the Chinese Room argument itself, from attempts to
establish the conclusion of that argument by other means so I shall develop his point

       I’ll start with an example of a hypothetical robotic domestic servant discussing the
dinner menu. Suppose that we are to dine on fish. If I’m thinking about having fish for
dinner, then fish, and eating it for dinner, are definitely what I’m thinking about. I salivate
and start to dwell upon a feeling of emptiness I’ve just noticed in my stomach. Compare
that with what happens if a computer is emulating the contemplation of fish for dinner.
Perhaps it has been programmed to construct menus by searching through a database of
recipes, nutritional information, and the gastronomic preferences of the household. Having
worked out the week’s menus it switches into chatty mode, accesses the wave patterns for
it’s chef’s voice and lisps “Fish for dinner today darlings”. In what sense has the computer
actually been thinking about fish and dinner, as opposed to the words ‘fish’ and ‘dinner’
and the value of the NVC (Nutritional Value Coefficient) calculated by using the DOA (Diet
Optimisation Algorithm)?
                                           Page 63
                               What is Philosophy Chapter 7
                                  by Richard Thompson

        The meaning of anything that a computer does seems to depend on what
significance we humans attach to its operations, as we observe it from the outside.
There’s no scope for meaning to well up from inside the computer; its actions can’t mean
anything to itself.

       We usually describe the data in a computer as a collection of numbers, just
because that makes it easier for us to think about what is going on. However we
sometimes use the same data to represent alphabetic characters or graphics. So
01110111 could represent 119 if we treat it as a single binary integer, or 77 if we think of it
as part of a binary coded decimal number, or it could be the standard ASCI coding for the
character ‘w’, or again the data might be part of a digitised picture. To decide which of
these it actually is we need to look outside the computer at the purposes of the
programmer. Of course we usually wouldn’t need to interview the programmer in person
because examining the program itself would give us plenty of clues what was going on.
We might say ‘this is the sort of program used to compress bit maps’ or ‘you only use that
process for arithmetic with binary coded decimals’ but what we mean when we say such
things is that human programmers use that sort of program only for such a purpose.
What we’d have found in the computer would be a clue to the programmers intentions, not
a sign that the computer itself meant anything by what it was doing. The clue, moreover,
would be intelligible only to someone who knew how programmers go about their work.

       The computer model of the mind tries to make an impossibly sharp division
between the mental and the physical. Mental processes are collections of events that have
other aspects we’d usually not call mental. We salivate when we think of our dinner and
we become aware of a slight emptiness that reassures us we have plenty of room for it
when it arrives. There’s probably a mental picture of dinner too, but that picture isn’t
essential and when there is a picture that isn’t all that’s involved in thinking about fish for
dinner. On the other hand it’s a completely different story when we wrinkle our brows and
visualise the dictionary and the crossword grid as we ponder “denizen of the briny waves,
4 letters ending in h”. There’s probably no tummy rumbling or salivating when we enter
‘FISH’ in the crossword puzzle.

       Our mental processes aren’t just abstract symbols, though they often use such
symbols and we often find it convenient to represent some of them by symbols. A thought
about an object is in part a record of the readiness of the appropriate body parts to do
something about that object. We are hosts to a complicated tangle of images, symbols and
assorted body parts in various states of preparedness. A thought or feeling is an aspect of
this whole.

      The computer model of the mind faces one more difficulty. Just what does ‘running’ a
computer program amount to. Running a program is a logical concept of performing the
operations specified in the program in the prescribed order. What equipment is used is
unimportant, provided that it has sufficient storage capacity and can perform all the
operations involved. Although speed and ease of construction dictate that all computers
are in practice electronic, that is not logically necessary. Eniac, the first stored program
computer, was electro mechanical, and could have been adapted to dispense with
electricity altogether. Programmers often perform what they call ‘dry runs’ of programs,
writing down what will appear in computer stores after each step of a program. There is no
logical difference between running a program on an electronic computer and writing down
the results of a dry run on sheets of paper, or even just thinking one’s way through a dry
                                          Page 64
                               What is Philosophy Chapter 7
                                  by Richard Thompson

run without writing anything down. If running a program on the computer called an
intelligence into being, so would carrying out a dry run, and we should have to attribute
intelligence to a file containing the record of a dry run. The speed of the run cannot be
relevant to the issue of whether or not an intelligence exists; if running a program suffices
to generate an intelligence, changing the speed of the run would just change the thinking
speed of the intelligence created. A computer might be run not at speeds of several
gigahertz, but at a few kilohertz, or 1 hertz, or one computer cycle per decade, or one per
millennium. Greg Egan explored such phantasies in Permutation City and other works.

       It doesn’t follow from any of the preceding arguments that it is logically impossible
to produce an artificial intelligence, but it does follow that we couldn’t do it just by
programming a general purpose computer. ‘Strong AI’ seems to be logically incoherent. To
produce artificial intelligence we’d need to build a robot with a body capable of appropriate
interaction with the sorts of things it is to think about, and with needs and desires so that
there are things it wants to do, providing goals for it to aim for.

    Although the preceding argument seems to me compelling, I still have reservations,
because there is a powerful counter argument.

      The human brain seems to be a machine of a rather special sort, so it should be
possible in principle, if not in practice, to construct a machine to carry out the same
functions. The working of any machine could, in principle, be simulated in computer
software. Therefore a human brain could so be simulated, and the suite of programs that
effected such a simulation would be intelligent.

     There seems to be a paradox. Every one of the following six propositions seems
plausible, yet, taken together, they are inconsistent.

     (1) The Brain is a machine

     (2) Machines can be simulated in software

     (3) The brain can be simulated in software

     (4) A simulation of the brain would constitute artificial intelligence

     (5) Intelligence can be simulated in software

     (6) Intelligence cannot be simulated in software

     (1) (2) and (4) all appear to be true, and there are cogent arguments in favour of (6),
     yet (1)and (2) imply (3) and (3) and (4) imply (5) which contradicts (6)

      I have no solution for this paradox, and can do no more than suggest two lines of
inquiry, both starting from the great complexity of the human brain.

     According to the first argument, the human brain is so complicated that there is no
hope of building in the foreseeable future a computer large enough to store a simulation.
That suggests that intensionality might just be a function of complexity, in that it might be a
property of complexes of regularities and behaviour patterns none of them individually
                                          Page 65
                               What is Philosophy Chapter 7
                                  by Richard Thompson

    Perhaps there is a weak analogy with ‘cause’ where causal relations seem to be
complexes of regularities each in itself too simple to be causal.

       The second argument is that even if artificial intelligence is possible in principle,
there might still be some logical objection to our constructing a simulation comparable in
power to our own intelligence; perhaps understanding how an intelligent being thinks is
only possible for an intelligence orders of magnitude more powerful than the intelligence
being studied. So we might possibly simulate the intelligence of a chimpanzee, but it might
take beings more intelligent than us to simulate the human mind.

       I do not suggest that either of those proposals is correct, and I’m not at all sure that
the first even makes sense, but, for the moment, they are all I have to offer.

      Alternative Strategies for the Analysis of Mind
      Dualism has considerable intuitive appeal, but has great difficulty in accounting for
the intimate connections between minds and the corresponding bodies. Monism avoids
that problem by denying that there are two distinct types of individual in need of
connection. The monist’s problems are of analysis - how to analyse the mental in terms of
the physical, or the physical in terms of the mental. An idealist has to account for the
appearance of matter in a world that is entirely mental, and the materialist must account
for the appearance of mind in a world that is entirely material.

      In each case policies of definition or reduction, though sometimes superficially
plausible, seem never quite to work. The idealist trying to analyse statements about
material objects into ones about sensations, and the materialist trying to analyse
statements about thoughts and feeling into ones about actions or brain states can neither
of them quite complete the analyses. For there is an infinite set of different patterns of
sensation that could correspond to the existence of a particular physical object at a
particular place and time, and there is an infinite set of possible behaviour patterns, or
configurations of brain cell activations, any one of which might consist in one person’s
loving another. The idealist’s phenomenalism, and the materialist’s logical behaviourism,
each lead to an infinite regress.

     There seem to be two alternatives to reductive analysis, one suitable for the idealist,
and one for the materialist

     From an idealist point of view, material objects might be, not sets of actual or
potential sensations, but theoretical entities postulated to help us to summarise our
sensations in an orderly fashion, in the same way that the atomic theory enables chemists
to summarise in an orderly way vast collections of data about chemical reactions.

      The materialist needs a strategy of a different type. A materialist can’t treat minds as
theoretical entities because that is unsustainable in the case of our own minds; we seem
to have direct knowledge of our own mental processes, and if we say that other people’s
minds are theoretical entities but ours aren’t, we still have to say what our own minds are.
The materialists’ way out is to relax the requirement that statements about the mental be
analysed into statements about bodies, in favour of saying that they are just one aspect of
the way bodies appear when they observe themselves in the special way that we call
introspection, a form of observation only possible when a body observes itself particular
from the inside, without using the sense organs as always would when observing another
                                          Page 66
                              What is Philosophy Chapter 7
                                 by Richard Thompson


      It may clarify the point to contrast what I’m now saying with logical behaviourism. The
logical behaviourist makes the stronger claim that all propositions about mental events are
logically equivalent to propositions about physical events of a particular sort. On the other
hand I’m not proposing that propositions about mental events are logically equivalent to
propositions about any sort of physical events. I’m proposing the weaker thesis that on
every occasion that a proposition about mental events is true, there is some
corresponding set of true propositions about physical events in the relevant body, but any
one of a wide variety of physical states might correspond to a particular proposition about
the mind.

      Formalising: If a proposition Pm about mental events is true, it is true because it
corresponds to some set of physical events Ei, but I’m not claiming that the same Ei
occurs every time Pm is true. If Pm is true on another occasion Oj, it may on that occasion
be true because of some physical event Ej which is not the same as Ei. On Monday
‘Richard wants chocolates’ is true because I wrote ‘chocolates’ on my shopping list. On
Tuesday it is true because I buy chocolates, and on Thursday it is true because, having
eaten all my own chocolates, I steal yours. Each of those physical events concerns my
interaction with chocolates, but, viewing them as physical events, they may have no
interesting common factor that can be stated without reference to me and chocolates. The
word ‘reference’ is important. Chocolates themselves may play no part in the physical
events that correspond to wanting chocolates, even though we can’t make sense of the
events without mentioning chocolates. When I wrote my shopping list for Monday, no
chocolates were on the scene - that was why I put them on the list. Tuesday’s story is the
only one in which chocolates were actually eaten by me. Thursday’s theft only made sense
because subsequent eating was contemplated, but that eating did not occur in the course
of the theft - of course it might have done had I been a more impetuous thief, but I like to
show some restraint even in my misdemeanours. Note that although I took examples of
overt behaviour as my examples of possible O’s, in many cases, especially when the Ei is
a subjective feeling, the O’s will be events in the brain.

      When thinking about other people, we call ‘mental’ those aspects of their behaviour
that involve perception, emotion, and skills of data manipulation and concept handling.
When thinking about ourselves we apply that same distinction, but we also distinguish
between what we find out about ourselves in the same way that others do - by looking at
our reflection in the mirror, or taking our temperature with a thermometer, and the things
we seem to know directly and without reference to the physical signs that are accessible to
others. Provided we don’t require a logical analysis of mind statements in terms of body
statements, we can say that the experiences of self consciousness are just the way the
body’s data processing activities appear when observed from the inside by the body in

      Self consciousness may just be this: we simultaneously observe ourselves in two
different ways, both in the way that we might observe any other person in whom we detect
data processing functions by observing behaviour, and also in another way as data
processors, treating our own data processing as itself data.

     Jaynes and Dennett on Consciousness
     In The Origin of Consciousness in the breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1976)

                                         Page 67
                              What is Philosophy Chapter 7
                                 by Richard Thompson

Julian Jaynes argued that self consciousness in the sense of introspective awareness of
ourselves as autonomous individuals is something we have to learn, so that it is only
possible in a society that recognises such a state of mind. He thought that in ancient
Greece self-consciousness appeared between the composition of the Odyssey and that of
the Iliad. Until the composition of the Iliad people lived in a state of dissociation between
the left and right hemispheres of the brain, a state Jaynes called the bicameral mind,
which he thought in some respects similar to schizophrenia. In that state decision making
was not conscious, and people attributed their decisions to agencies external to
themselves. Much of the time most people would have been obeying the commands of
some other human - a parent of a tribal chief, but when a decision was made without
prompting by any other human it was attributed to the gods. Although the men of the time
did not realise it, what they believed to be the voices of the gods came from themselves,
originating from a region of the right hemispheres of their brains. Jaynes believed he could
identify that region because language is mainly dealt with by a region of the left
hemisphere called Wernicke’s area, and he hypothesized that it is the corresponding area
of the right hemisphere that was responsible for the ‘voices of the gods’. There is some
evidence that the right hemisphere does have some linguistic ability, so it seems
reasonable to locate that in the region corresponding to Wernicke’s area The area in
question is active during religious experiences and schizophrenic episodes. Jaynes though
that visual hallucinations of the gods may have had a similar origin.

      Gradually, Jaynes suggested, the bicameral mind broke down as ancient civilisations
collapsed and people needed to think for themselves because they could no longer rely on
custom and traditional authorities to guide them. While in the Odyssey and the some of the
early books of the Old testament men were depicted as doing the bidding of the gods who
spoke to them frequently, in the Iliad and the book of Ecclesiastes, they were represented
as thinking for themselves and making plans of their own, showing that men had gained
self consciousness by the time those later works were composed.

      Jaynes theory does sound very odd and it has been widely criticised. Without
committing myself to supporting Jaynes, it occurs to me that things might have developed
as follows. Animals instinctively make alarm calls, and sometimes make calls signalling the
discovery of food or their availability for copulation. Such signals are almost certainly
instinctive as is the reaction of other animals hearing the signal. When a solitary animal
makes an alarm call, the flight reaction occasioned by the sensing of danger may be
accentuated by hearing its own alarm call, which it might perceive in just the same way as
it would the call of another animal. Speech might develop as an elaboration of the system
of instinctive animal calls, and while the language would be learnt and not instinctive, its
use might still be as unreflective as the learnt behaviour of non human animals. One might
thus reach a state of affairs where people spoke as part of a social system in which one
person’s experiences prompted speech which put other people who heard it in a similar
state to that produced by the actual experiences that had generated the speech. Collective
action to meet the prevailing situation might be co-ordinated by speech, and eventually the
state of affairs might be reached where an individual on his own would sometimes act, not
directly in response to what he perceives, but in response to his own speech
unconsciously generated in response to his perceptions. Having made all that up, I have to
confess that I don’t believe it, but perhaps that is just the inflexibility of an old man’s
thought processes.

    Under the influence of Jaynes, Daniel Dennett in Consciousness Explained
suggested that consciousness is a cultural artefact. Dennett borrowed the concept of the
                                       Page 68
                              What is Philosophy Chapter 7
                                 by Richard Thompson

meme from Richard Dawkins. According to Dawkins a meme is a concept or belief that
evolves and spreads through human society, as it does so being modified by a process of
selection analogous to the natural selection that shapes biological species 2 . Dennett
thought that consciousness is constructed by memes.

      He observed that consciousness as we picture it is quite unlike the brain processes
from which it must arise. Consciousness is serial, with a single stream of thoughts and
experiences, yet the brain is not serial but parallel with vast numbers of different processes
simultaneously happening in different places. It was our stream of consciousness that
inspired the so called Von Neumann architecture of the digital computer in which there is
a single processor in which all operations are performed one after the other. Dennett
therefore proposed that consciousness is a creation of memes that have programmed a
virtual von Neumann machine to run as a program on the parallel computer of our brains.
(See the summary in Consciousness Explained pages 253-254)

      I think that, dubious though some of it sounds, Dennett’s theory may at least avoid
the objections that seem fatal to Strong AI. For strong AI proposes to explain the totality of
our mental processes as created by some sort of computer program, and its fatal
weakness is its inability to account for the intensionality of mental processes. On the other
hand Dennett’s theory of consciousness proposes to explain only some aspects of
mentality by treating them as like a computer program running inside a brain whose
unconscious processes already constitute a mind of sorts, so that intensionality is provided
by instincts already encapsulated in that brain.

      Dennett considered that the advantages of consciousness, which make the
consciousness memes attractive, are that it enables us to remind ourselves what to do,
and to use our brains efficiently by considering what to think about next. The biologically
important advantage is that consciousness makes it possible to review our patterns of
behaviour and our strategies of learning thus opening the possibility of improving them.
(Dennett Freedom Evolves) Many animals are capable of learning, but they can learn only
by following instinctive learning rules that amount to simple induction ‘A has just been
followed by B, so expect B to follow the next occurrence of B’ where A and B a qualities
that the animal recognises by instinct. To learn second order rules that indicate when such
inferences are reliable, and when they are not, requires more than instinct, and the state in
which we review past successes and failures and formulate second order rules is what we
call consciousness, a state that is a prerequisite of rationality.

       While re-reading Consciousness Explained (Chapter 10) there occurred to me a
possibility that might be part of what Dennett had in mind, though It might just be
something I thought of under the stimulus of his work. Consciousness might be a way of
facilitating communication between different parts of the brain. When speculating about the
mind Philosophers and people in general often take it for granted that the mind is a sort of
open conceptual space in which everything is always accessible. That thesis does not
survive scrutiny, for we frequently have difficulty remembering words and names,
       The development of memes cannot be a close analogue of biological evolution. In
biology genetic material is usually copied unchanged, but there are occasional discrete
changes that take place by chance. In the realm of ideas, on the other hand, modification
in transmission is the rule rather than the exception, changes can be extremely small -
sometimes of emphasis rather than of substance, and changes are often not by chance
but are planned.
                                         Page 69
                              What is Philosophy Chapter 7
                                 by Richard Thompson

remembering what we were about to say or, or what it was we’ve just come upstairs in
search of; ‘mental space’ clearly has its dark corners and hidden secrets.

      Some parts of the brain specialise in input, finding patterns in or imposing patterns on
sensory stimuli. Other parts specialise in output, formulating or executing physical actions,
not least the actions of speech and gesture. If the latter parts of the brain, or other parts
intimately connected to them, need to influence the former receptive parts, internal
channels of communication may not always be the easiest way, so external channels may
be employed, so we may do something or say something to attract the attention of the
parts of our brains that deal with such happenings. Consciousness might in part be an
internalisation of such processes, in which one part of the brain communicates with
another by producing a sham externality so that instead of speaking to ourselves out loud
or writing ourselves lists of things to do, we ‘speak‘ to ourselves silently.

      Dennett observed that our mental life is much more fluid and less definite than we
usually believe. He considered that most discussion of the mind assumes a picture that he
calls ‘the Cartesian Theatre’, in which everything of which we are conscious is supposed to
come together in one place to be observed. Apart from its having no support from
anatomy, that picture is contradicted by experiments of Benjamin Libet in which people are
asked to record when they decide to perform a simple action, and their testimony is
compared with recordings of brain activity. The experiments appeared to show that actions
are initiated before the agent is conscious of the decision to act. Libet interpreted that as
supporting determinism, but Dennett considered that it showed only that when various
events occur in various parts of the brain there is no reliable internal method for
determining their order. The picture of discrete mental events happening in a clearly
defined sequence is an illusion of linear simplicity extracted rather haphazardly from a
complicated tangle of simultaneous and overlapping processes reacting with each other.
What we usually call our states of mind are atypical states that are produced when we stop
the normal mental flux, and try to produce a summary. When we summarise our states of
mind we usually do so in words, often for communication to others. If we produce such a
summary on our own initiative it will usually be because we think we’ve reached a
conclusion and have something definite to say, or else because we have come to an
impasse and need help.

      If someone else interrupts by asking what we are thinking, it can be quite hard
answer precisely, and anything we do say will usually be too definite to be correct.
Sometimes such an interruption can be very annoying. If someone else calls a halt to my
thought processes by asking a question when I’m deep in thought I’m usually disconcerted
and annoyed, and if the question they ask is the particularly infuriating ‘what are you
thinking?’ I’m usually quite at loss to answer and often aroused to almost homicidal fury as
an intricate web of half formed thought is shattered beyond recovery.

     As an exercise, I decided to try to describe my mind, as I perceive it, and to ask other
people to describe their minds so we can compare notes. Reader of this essay should
consider that an invitation to make a contribution.

      My Mind. There are usually various pictures and diagrams in my mind, and when I’m
thinking something through there’s usually a verbal commentary too, a sort of inner
soliloquy. The commentary is usually delivered in the first person, but is sometimes is
replaced by a dialogue. In the latter case the dialogue can either be with a particular
person, or just with an imagined proponent of a particular point of view. Sometimes I’m
                                       Page 70
                              What is Philosophy Chapter 7
                                 by Richard Thompson

describing real or imagined events, possibly summarising something I’ve read or have
heard someone say, sometimes I’m rehearsing something I might eventually say to
someone, sometimes asking myself a question. The verbal component may be closely
related to the visual imagery. For instance if I plan to give someone a recipe, I’ll usually
visualise cooking the dish in question, estimate quantities by eye from the visualisation,
imagine myself carrying out the process, and describe what I imagine. Sometimes the
visualisations and verbal component are more loosely related, exploring different aspects
of the same problem, and sometimes the two seem to be independent; the visualisation
serving as a reminder that there are other things to be attended to besides whatever I’m

     Visualisation takes place in my visual field of view, but doesn’t prevent my seeing the
aspect of the physical world that lies before me, and I don’t need to shut my eyes to view
my mental processes. I’m not sure that I ever visualise proper pictures. My visual imagery
is more like an intermediate between diagrams and cartoons and is mostly out of focus
and without colour, so it’s more a matter of knowing where different things are, like a board
game or a diagram on a computer screen where a thumb-nail picture of something pops
up if you move the mouse over its button. Sometimes blocks of text are visualised -
though usually not clearly enough for me to read the print, instead they are accompanied
by knowledge of the gist of what the text says.

     The whole is rather like a ballet in which the producer has cheated by letting some of
the characters carry little placards giving pieces of information, and spectators have
intermittent access to a spoken commentary.

      If I’m analysing a problem or developing an argument I often visualise little balloons
representing the propositions involved, arranged to illustrate their logical relations. The
positions of the balloons represent the logical relations between the propositions. If A
implies B there is an pathway running from the A balloon to the B balloon. If the validity of
the inference would be supported or undermined by a third proposition C, a C balloon may
be attached to the line representing the inference. When considering a mathematical proof
I see a picture of the proof written out on some indefinite surface, with the stage I’m
concentrating on shown in detail, with its symbols and diagrams in focus; the rest of the
proof is a blur with text and diagrams out of focus, available for inspection if I decide to
redirect the focus to it, but often not instantaneously available; when required it may have
to be rebuilt from a few basic ideas. Mathematics is neither heard nor spoken, and any
accompanying verbalisation is a rehearsal for possible communication with someone else,
something added after the Mathematics is done.

       The odd behaviour of some other people - asking me what I’m thinking when it
should be clear I’m thinking deeply, asking questions that require a detailed answer
illustrated by diagrams, without providing the requisite pen and paper, or even better board
and chalk, suggests that many people’s thought processes, or at least their reasoning
processes, are largely or exclusively verbal. I’m confirmed in that suspicion by the
frequency of errors in logic that involve confusing linguistically similar, but importantly
different, phrases or sentences.

     When I was 10 years old, in my last year at the junior school, my class was set what
was in those days considered to be an exciting intellectual challenge. We had to describe
a teapot without saying what it was used for. Of course the description had to be
exclusively in words. As practice in linguistic dexterity the exercise was not without merit,
                                          Page 71
                                What is Philosophy Chapter 7
                                   by Richard Thompson

but it was not a good way of describing a teapot. Set by more imaginative teachers, and
followed up by a survey of non-linguistic communication the exercise would have been
even more useful, but that didn’t happen at my school.

     General conversation often reminds me of the teapot exercise. People expect
explanations to be in words, either words alone or words supplemented only by gestures.
They expect the words to be spoken, not written down. The tangled multi-dimensional
networks of logical relations must therefore be mapped onto a linear sequence. Such a
mapping can indeed be made, but to understand it we have to write it down and study it.
We can’t successfully prattle our way through any substantial piece of reasoning. The
supposition that we can underlies much confusing oversimplification.

      Personal Immortality
      If mental events are a subset of physical events, those taking place inside a sentient
body and experienced from the point of view of the body in which they are taking place,
there can be no mental event without a body, and no possibility of a mind surviving the
death of its body. Personal immortality would be impossible without securing immortality
for the body. That would not offer immortality to any of us, since our bodies are clearly not
immortal and we have no way of making them so. I’ve already noted that Joseph
Priestley was convinced that nothing survives the death of the human body but thought
that immortality might still be possible by God’s recreation of the body of an individual who
had earlier died. The doctrine of bodily resurrection has been widely held though it has
usually been accompanied by the assumption that some residue of the deceased would be
incorporated in the new body. Without such a component the resurrection would make just
a facsimile of the original body, raising the intriguing possibility that if it were possible to
make one facsimile of a dead person’s body, it should be possible to make several, or to
make facsimile’s of the bodies of the living. Which one would then be the identified with the
original person? While something of the sort might just conceivably be achieved one day
that is not what people mean when they express the hope of surviving bodily death and
being reunited with old friends in a ‘better place’, so I shall pursue the possibility no further.

      Even people who do not accept that mental events are also physical, realise that
there is a close connection between minds and bodies. Mind develops as the body
develops. It is through the body that the mind finds out what is going on in the world
around it, through the nervous system that it controls the body’s voluntary motions, in the
brain that speech is formulated and interpreted. Damage to the body impairs mental
functions. We do not need a detailed theory of the connection between mind and body to
see that it likely that when the body perishes, the associated mental activity will also come
to an end.

       There is no evidence for human survival after physical death, nor any evidence for
the presence of any identifiable object other than the body that might be the medium in
which mental events take place. Ghost stories, when investigated, turn out to be either
muddle, fraud, or a fuss about nothing. The supposed evidence of séances is very weak.
Mediums usually utter platitudes, or recycle information inadvertently provided by the
sitter. Although there have occasionally been striking mediumistic performances that
cannot be dismissed in that way, there have been sufficiently many cases of mediums
being detected in fraud to make undetected fraud the most reasonable explanation of the
few séances that are in any way remarkable.

     Even if reports of ‘paranormal’ phenomena were better authenticated, they would not
                                        Page 72
                                What is Philosophy Chapter 7
                                   by Richard Thompson

on their own demonstrate the survival of human minds. Consider the spiritualists ideal
evidence: Mediumistic experiments producing copious quantities of information that we
can verify from independent sources, but which could not been known to the medium by
any normal means. An example would be the key to a code, which someone constructed
before dying, in the hope that he might demonstrate his survival after death 3. Such an
experiment would point to some sort of information store that survived a person’s death,
but why should that information store be immaterial, or indeed a former part of the dead
person? Couldn’t there be some sort of physical store capable of receiving and information
from several bodies and preserving it after those bodies decay? Human minds
communicate only through the operation of human bodies, so if memories normally
associated with a human being seemed to survive that human’s body, it would be sensible
to look for an alternative physical store rather than to assume that something non-physical
was involved. The brain seems to operate by the transmission of electric currents, so
some sort of electrical or even magnetic effect should be the first thing to look for -
perhaps a standing wave in the aether, or a magnetic record in the rocks. So mediumistic
messages apparently from the dead would not support survival, unless there were also
evidence that the minds of live humans can communicate without any interaction between
the corresponding bodies. Such evidence would be mediumistic, or perhaps telepathic,
communication between the living, so a parapsychological case for survival would have to
include authentication of a wide range of phenomena involving transmission of mental
activity that takes place independently of the body in whose mind the mental activity is
taking place. It would not suffice to authenticate just those phenomena that appear directly
related to survival.

      An oddity of the Christian tradition is that immortality is supposed to be in only one
direction - into the future, but not into the past. Plato believed in pre-existence as well as
future immortality, as do Hindus and Buddhists. Understandably so, since belief in
personal immortality is usually associated with a belief that the mind, or the soul, is part of
an enduring spiritual world of imperishable individuals, a world superior to the physical
world of imperfect transient things where ‘moth and rust’ corrupt everything. Yet if there is
no pre-existence the mind/soul must be created at the same time as the body is formed,
so the world of the spirit seems to be at the beck and call of the despised material world. A
brisk mingling of body fluids behind the bike sheds is all it needs to create an immortal soul
or to constrain God to create one.

      Although future immortality makes more sense when linked to belief in pre-existence,
there is no evidence for pre-existence either. We do not remember past lives, and our
bodies are definitely living their first lives, so there is nothing to link us to any previous life.
Personal identity is established by bodily continuity supported in difficult cases by
continuity of experience sustained by memory. We noted earlier that there has been
discussion of which criterion should prevail if the two conflict, but where neither criterion is
available there can be no basis at all for identifying people alive today with anyone who
lived in the past. Even if our present lives could each be identified as components in a
       The late Dr. Robert Thouless created such a coded message before he died in
1984. The code was broken with the aid of a computer several years after Thouless’s
death without anyone claiming to have broken it paranormally. See James J. Gillogly and
Larry Harnisch in Cryptologia, October 1996; Volume XX, Number 4. Assuming they
published within a year or two of decrypting the message, they must have done so about
ten years after Thouless’ death, leaving ample time for any survival from Thouless’s mind
to have communicated the key, had anything survived capable of doing so.
                                         Page 73
                                 What is Philosophy Chapter 7
                                    by Richard Thompson

series stretching back into the past as well as into the future, the fact that in this life we
don’t remember our past lives would suggest that in future lives we shan’t remember this
life. In that case, although there would then be an afterlife it would be much less than
many people hope for when they look forward to being reunited with old friends. Basing
personal identity on memory precludes treating such a future life as even our life at all.

      There have been a few cases in which people have claimed to remember past lives,
sometimes under hypnosis - so called ‘hypnotic regression’ There have been a very few
cases where such putative memories have matched much of the lives of identifiable
people, but in such cases it is impossible to eliminate the possibility that the person
appearing to remember a past life was actually remembering information about someone
else’s life obtained by normal means such as reading or conversation. If we’d really had
previous lives we should all have quite full memories of them, and a high proportion of
those memories should be corroborated by the records, and by other people’s memories.

      In Problems of Mind and Matter John Wisdom put forward a strange argument for
pre-existence, holding that it is presupposed by our possession of free will. He believed
that introspection provides us with conclusive evidence that we have free will.

       Wisdom thought that we could not be held resp0nsible for an act, if our performing it
were a consequence of some cause outside our own mental events. However, he also
believed that every event has a cause. If therefore some person, P came into existence at
a certain time, its beginning to exist would have some cause before that time, and that
cause would be outside P, since P would not have existed then. Therefore every act
performed by P would, at least in part, be traceable to whatever caused P to exist, and
hence to something outside P’s mental state. Therefore P would not satisfy Wisdom’s
criterion for having free will.

     Wisdom therefore held that every human mind must either have had no beginning, or
must have begun with ‘the first causes’ of the entire Universe. As Wisdom put it:

           “The Series of Internal Determination must be either Infinite or World-Long” (Problems of Mind
      and Matter p 123)

       I do not understand why Wisdom thought that free will was consistent either an
infinite sequence of causes, or an external cause that was part of a first cause of the
universe, yet thought any other cause inconsistent with free will.

    There is a lot to be said for Aristotle’s distinction between causes within our own
mental processes, and external causes, but I don’t think that need extend to causes of

      Wisdom was considering an abstract notion of free will without considering why it is
sometimes important to decide whether or not someone acted freely. The most important
practical mater that turns on the answer, is whether or not to apply praise or blame. Praise
or blame are appropriate where someone’s behaviour can be altered by what we say to
them, and they can usually be so influences when the immediate causes of the action
include their own states of mind. It is not necessary that those states of mind should be
somehow insulated from external influence - indeed it is because we hope that people’s
states of mind are open to influence by the external influence of what we say, that we think
it worthwhile to praise them or blame them.
                                              Page 74
                              What is Philosophy Chapter 7
                                 by Richard Thompson

      F. H. Bradley thought we may not have sufficiently clear criteria of personal identity
for survival to make sense. He also observed that people often expect far more from
immortality than we might reasonably expect, remarking that although it is often thought
that religion and morality require that we be immortal, religion requires only the
re-assurance that our temporal existence is not the ‘main reality’, and people who need to
believe they are immortal to induce them to behave morally are contemptible; it would be
better if they became extinct to make way for a better species.

     Bradley also suggested that some embrace belief in immortality because they fear
death. Yet if what they fear is the state of being dead, then if there is no survival there is
nothing to fear. On the other had if they fear the process of dying, not only does
immortality give no security from that often painful process of bodily decay, it opens up the
possibility of our suffering that more than once through a succession of lives all ending

     Bradley thought that the only creditable reason for wanting to be immortal is the wish
be reunited with old friends and loved ones, but immortality would not guarantee that they
would still remember us and love us, or we them, when we meet again in the afterlife,
and to hope that our deceased loved ones will continue to love us implies their suffering
from our absence while they wait for us to rejoin them. So even from this point of view
immortality would be at best a mixed blessing.

      Those arguments of Bradley’s are not reasons for disbelieving in immortality, but they
are reasons for resisting any temptation to deceive ourselves into a belief not warranted by
the evidence.

     If the computer/computer program model of body and mind were tenable there would
be a way in which we might be immortal, or, if not yet immortal, able to make ourselves
immortal, for we might hope to do that by transferring our software to another computer -
perhaps running ourselves on a nice electronic computer in a clean steel box instead of on
one of those inferior smelly organic models. But the computer model of the mind may be
incoherent, amounting to nothing more than science fiction, so it appears that we may just
have to make the best of the finite protoplasmic life we have.

                                          Page 75

To top