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No Disproof Possible • Truth, Justice & the Amercan Way • Nietzsche: Delusion & Confusion • The Singing Revolutionaries

No Disproof Possible

DEAR EDITOR: In Prof. Antony Flew’s article ‘Theology and Falsification’ (issue 29) he ends by asking the question: “What would… constitute… a disproof… of the existence of God?” My answer to this is simple - nothing! In no way can faith be disproved. Faith is that which is held even in the face of logical contradiction, absurdity, and blatant refutation. These issues go back to men like Spinoza and Kierkegaard who wanted, although for very different reasons, to show that faith and reason are not at loggerheads. In fact, the one has nothing to do with the other. That’s why faith is faith: there can be no proof or disproof of it, and the more anyone tries to do so, the more that person has missed the essential point of belief. For it makes no difference if I know that God exists or not, but the critical issue is my personal relationship to God, ie, my belief or faith in God. Thus, I do not see why Prof. Flew is confused, as he surely must know and understand the difference between faith and reason and the appropriate ‘things’ to which the former and the latter apply. And I have a question for him: what kind of proof would it take for us no longer to believe that logic and reason is the sole avenue to the truth or an understanding of God?


DEAR EDITOR: What seems strange about Antony Flew’s famous article (‘Theology and Falsification’, Philosophy Now Issue 29) is that there is no mention of agnosticism.

Yet the question he poses can just as cogently be put the other way (though not with his eloquence), i.e. “what would it take for you to accept the existence of God?”

There is no doubt, in my view, not the slightest, that agnosticism is the only rational argument, i.e. we just do not know if there is a God. Beyond that there is, in each direction, faith or dogmatism according to one’s point of view. Incidentally, as for me, I do not choose to follow Nietzsche up into his mists of eternally recurring madness!


DEAR EDITOR: I have been trying the cutting edge of the jewel Antony Flew has placed in our hands. Let us follow his instructions to find the equivalent of an assertion by the denial of its negation using his example. “God exists, furthermore he is invisible and intangible”. If we negate this we get an absurdity . “God does not exist, furthermore he is visible and tangible”. By denying an absurdity one cannot vindicate the truth or falsity of any proposition including the one above.


Truth, Justice & the Amercan Way

DEAR EDITOR: Concerning the Philosophy Now interview with Sir Stuart Hampshire in the August/September issue, kindly consider that, given the number of failed empires of the 20th Century, the lesson of the millennium might be that a country must have domestic justice in order to be a superpower, which is why there is only one superpower. The point is not to gloat, but rather to spare the lives of millions of innocent people who die for lack of and awaiting justice. It would appear that if every country had a constitution like the United States, just ask any mother of a newborn where she would most prefer to raise her child.

War is not inevitable. Peace is possible. Just copy what works.


Nietzsche: Delusion & Confusion

DEAR EDITOR: Eva Cybulska relates Nietzsche’s idea of cyclic recurrence to various world mythologies. She quotes Mircea Eliade: Myths tell us what has really happened, yet she characterizes Nietzsche’s great idea as delusion. She also juxtaposes ancient beliefs in cyclic return with the eschatological concepts of the Middle Ages. The Concise Oxford Dictionary (1990) defines eschatology as the part of theology concerned with death and final destiny. Return from that if you can! Some philosophers, apparently, suggest a relationship between cyclic return and Kant’s categorical imperative in the form: Whatever you will, will it in such a manner that you also will its eternal return. But Kant was talking about ethical decisions, not events, and freely taking an ethical decision on the basis of its universalizability is not the same as anticipating a necessary recurrence of events. Similarly, Dr Cybulska’s statement that Hegel affirmed that in nature things repeat themselves forever and that there is nothing new under the sun conflicts with Hegel’s concept of continual dialectical movement. Seen from above, someone climbing a spiral staircase appears to be going round and round a circle, but is, in fact, climbing to higher and higher levels. This is a denial of exact return. Nietzsche referred to eternal return as the most scientific of all ideas and yet he never offered any proof of the concept. Ultimately, it is verification, or an attempt thereof, that distinguishes scientific discovery from delusion says Dr Cybulska. Oh dear! Science (Wissenschaft in German) in this context does not mean the natural sciences; it means an organized body of knowledge, however it has been gained or might be tested. Proof or disproof, moreover, cannot apply to concepts, only to truth claims. Further, verification is not the same as proof. And scientific discovery is validated by attempts to falsify, not to verify, let alone to prove. (A more promising critique might have begun like this: if Nietzsche’s notion of exact return is a prediction of the future, it is by definition incapable of falsification; if a description of the past, it can only be a new idea if it is untrue.)

“Thoughts and ideas are true not because they depict external reality, but because they mirror the inner world.” This is an idealist denial of the correspondence theory of truth. Better still, “they create the inner world”: a truism. But now: “They create that life-saving illusion. These ideas must be true, because they heal.” Illusion? Or even delusion? By what criteria? If we have abandoned correspondence to an objective external reality, if truth is measured by therapeutic efficacy, if the ideas in question are healing ones, how can they be illusory? As for the idea that eternal return was for Nietzsche a kind of mandala (even though Dr Cybulska qualifies it with her ubiquitous “could it be that…?”), a mandala in religious iconography and in Jung is a closed outline symbolically containing the world, not a cyclic rotation around the circumference. Dr Cybulska, finally, suggests that Freud reworked Nietzsche’s idea of eternal return into a repetition compulsion. The latter is a subjective pathological compulsion to repeatedly seek out identical or similar experiences. How can one associate a pathological but deliberate seeking-out with the natural and inevitable recurrence of the totality of events? Freud was describing the behaviour of particular people; Nietzsche the universal, inescapable nature of the world which is neither determined nor chosen by individuals. Better by far Dr Cybulska’s return to her idealist, non-correspondent, grandly therapeutic criterion of validity, not to say truth: “The thought of eternal return has two faces: a face of terror and a face of exhilaration. The test that eternal recurrence poses is whether one can say yes to it, and transcend terror as well as resentment. The redemption comes with overcoming.”


DEAR EDITOR: Happy as I was to see my own book Nietzsche in Turin. reviewed in your Nietzsche anniversary issue, I was sorry to see your front cover dominated by a Prussian Nietzsche reminscent of the photograph everyone uses, including my own US publisher, Picador. That same publisher stuck on the rather lurid subtitle ‘The Intimate Biography’, intimate having modish connections, vaguely, with Heidegger, I believe. Still, that’s better than what the Italians did to me, with a cover that looked like the flag of some unnamed but obviously Fascist country. What strikes me is how different it is to change the image of a thinker. Even if one begins to change it in words, and those words are ‘bought’, in both a literal and a figurative sense, still one has a further job to do in terms of changing the visual image.

What I tried to do in my book was introduce a different Nietzsche, rescued from the stereotypes of the immediate post-war which are certainly associated with the ‘Prussian’ iconography, and which are only now losing their potency, and even then only among the initiated. My original publisher Quartet obliged me by using a Munch pastel, a personal response by the Norwegian painter who had otherwise been given a public commission to paint the dying Nietzsche. Readers can see this deeply sympathetic portrait of a man human like the rest of us on the cover of the British edition of my book. But now it is also available – imagine my delight in this – in the commemorative postage stamp put out by the German Post Office and featured on p.6 of your journal. A big thank you for letting me know about this! Do you think the Germans took their cue from a British writer sympathetic to Nietzsche but didn’t want to say so, out of shyness at being seen to go soft on their old beast?


DEAR EDITOR: Why does Bill Cooke allow for differing interpretations of Nietzsche but not for Heidegger? (Oct/Nov2000). If Nietzsche can be understood ‘individualistically’, certainly Heidegger can as well. True, in the light of our increasing knowledge of Heidegger’s politics, terms like ‘authenticity’ and ‘destiny’ take on a sinister tone; but equally they can appear innocent and insightful if read in the context of a personal existentialism. Moreover, the term ‘mystical’ is frequently applied to Heidegger’s later writings, and by any definition, mysticism deals with man’s individual relation to the ‘eternal’ beyond society. Again, Heidegger’s critique of the homogeneous influence of technology or globalization, as we would call it now, and his evocation of earth as the ‘building bearer’ for man and nature could be read narrowly as a kind of Fascist ‘blood and soil’ politics. Equally, and I believe more truthfully, it furnishes a radical spiritual and all-embracing human philosophy, which preserves freedom and creativity and offers a framework for ‘deep ecology’. To say that Heidegger’s ‘focus on Being is static and gloomy’ is over simplified. For Heidegger, time is the ‘transcendental horizon’ for Being, as the opening paragraph of Being and Time makes clear. Later, he even reversed the two, and coined more poetic terms for ‘Being’. The impression that Heidegger’s Being’ is static rather than dynamic is probably due to the psychological effect generated by the capital B, a misleading convention preserved in translation, one which promotes the notion of a tyrannical metaphysical Absolute of the kind Heidegger wanted to ‘overcome’. It is better to think ‘being’ than ‘Being’. It sounds more personal, and allows for a more ethical reading of Heidegger’s work.


DEAR EDITOR: Congratulations on your Nietzsche issue (Issue 29). I enjoyed it immensely and learned some things from it.

However, there is one problem that bothers me about Nietzsche and none of your contributors, excellent though they were, shed light on it. If everything is determined by “recurrence of the same”, how can we attempt a “re-evalu-ation of all values”, or indeed make any decision whatsoever? Were all decisions made first time round and everything since has been a repeat? Or did Nietzsche believe that this is the first time round? That at least would make sense in his own terms but would just bring the rest of us back to the problem of free will.

Perhaps Nietzsche himself believed that only the ‘overman’, when he eventually appeared, would be capable of resolving the paradox and the rest of us must accept it all in faith in the meantime. Mm…


The Singing Revolutionaries

DEAR EDITOR: In his article, ‘The Singer Revolution’ (Issue 28), Richard Taylor states that “[Peter] Singer bases his philosophy on the simple, incontestable idea that suffering is evil, wherever it exists. We ought, therefore, to reduce it wherever we can.” I am not certain that Singer bases his entire philosophy on this idea, but I am certain that the idea is both contestable and false. Suffering exists only from the point of view of sentient beings; without such beings there simply would be no suffering. So the surest way of all to reduce – indeed eliminate – suffering is to eliminate the sort of creatures that suffer. Nuclear warfare, I am told, enables us to achieve this end. Ought we, therefore, to eliminate all forms of life on the planet through nuclear warfare? Of course not. Life itself, whether it involves suffering or not, is valuable.

Taylor imagines that Peter Singer is bringing about a revolution in ethical thinking, a revolution through which the principle of the sanctity of life will be subordinated to the principle to reduce suffering. This idea, I think, is illusory, a philosopher’s fantasy. Neither of the two principles that Taylor cites can, or should be, regarded as the guiding ethical principle in all contexts. The formula ‘all killing is immoral’ is a simple idea that admits of a number of exceptions. But the formula ‘all suffering is evil’ is equally simplistic and subject to just as many exceptions. The truth is more complex than either of these two formulas suggest. We should avoid the mistaken idea that one of these two principles should, in all contexts, take precedence over the other. Nor are we in the midst of a revolution through which one will be subordinated to the other.


DEAR EDITOR: I would like to once again express my appreciation for your magnificent magazine. Reading it is like coming home for Christmas. I have been thinking non-stop now for fifteen years and wondering why popular writing has gotten worse, only to discover I’ve become more demanding. To find a magazine that insists on serious thought is like stumbling on an oasis.

Then there is the content. I knew (and know) nothing about philosophy other than its existence. Your ‘Philosophy in a Nutshell’ is a godsend. But some of what is on your pages surprises me. Do we really maintain these archaic positions?

I started reading ‘The Singer Revolution’ (Issue 28) and was struck by the statement that the traditional approach to ethics “rests on the belief in the unique value of human life.” When I read that my initial response was “Well of course that no longer works!” but when I scratched out the word ‘human’ I saw my own understanding of the concept of ethics.

It doesn’t seem necessary to me that ethics need have its meaning changed to the reduction of suffering, but simply to the principle of the sanctity of life. Non-human beings would no longer be excluded from ethical consideration, and the doctrine of universal rights would automatically include carrots and the comatose.

I did not know that the human soul, according to traditional Christian theology, is infused at the moment of conception. I though the traditional belief was that the soul entered at the moment of quickening, and that that was changed by the medical profession in the mid-nineteenth century to some strange idea of first movement of the fetus in order to explain on a materialistic level an essentially metaphysical occurrence, forcing theology to move the infusion to conception.

Having finished Professor Taylor’s article, I can now go on to the rest of your excellent mag, hoping the rest of philosophy is not as archaic as ethics.


Who is John Passmore?

DEAR EDITOR: In 1972 I bought The Perfectibility of Man by John Passmore. It is a brilliant book – lucid and readable – which I have been dipping into since.

All I know about John Passmore is that in 1969 he was a professor at the Australian National University in Canberra. Perhaps you would be able to give some information about him in an issue of Philosophy Now?

I am retired now and so have time for philosophy – as I have time to cultivate my garden!


DEAR BILL: Thanks for the letter. I was familiar with the name, but didn’t know much else about Passmore, so I’ve looked him up.

John Passmore was born in Sydney in 1914 and taught at the Australian National University from 1954 until he retired in 1979 – he is still Emeritus Professor there. He is regarded by many as being in the top tier of Australia’s philosophers, along with the likes of David Armstrong, Peter Singer and J.J.C. Smart (who, by the way, has written an article for this issue of Philosophy Now – it is on page 17. Do I sound smug?). Unlike Smart, Passmore has mainly written about other philosophers – for instance, he did a brilliant analysis of David Hume’s ideas, trying to show that Hume undermined his own philosophical aims. That apart, he wrote Man’s Responsibility for Nature, one of the first philosophical attempts to tackle environmental issues. Passmore’s bestknown book is A Hundred Years of Philosophy (1957 but reprinted many times since) which describes the development of philosophy from John Stuart Mill onwards, and is very highly thought of – it sounds like you might enjoy it.


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