welcome covers

Your complimentary articles

You’ve read one of your four complimentary articles for this month.

You can read four articles free per month. To have complete access to the thousands of philosophy articles on this site, please



Derrida’s Degree • Myths and Truths • Debate Warms Up • Threats to Democracy • Evolution and God • Keeping Art Alive • Why Mistakes Matter • Islamic Philosophers & Theologians • DNA, Explanation & the God Gambit • The ‘Ism’

Derrida’s Degree

DEAR EDITOR: I must correct a factual error in the News section of the latest Philosophy Now. It is not true that Jacques Derrida was refused an honorary degree by Cambridge University. The sequence of events was as follows:

Derrida was nominated for the degree at the instigation of the English Faculty, not the Philosophy Faculty. (It is interesting that his recent honorary degree from Queen Mary College, London, was also in literature.) At the University meeting to ratify this nomination, D.H. Mellor, a member of the Philosophy Faculty, stood up and pronounced a formula in Latin which indicated he did not agree to the award. It had been many years since this arcane procedure had last been invoked. Its consequence was that the entire academic staff of the University were invited to vote on whether the award should be given. The pro and con camps both produced leaflets setting out their views. It was at this point that the national media became interested in the dispute. Derrida himself seems to have viewed the events with a certain bemused amusement. Physicists, engineers, and specialists in Anglo-Saxon all had the chance to vote on the appropriateness of honouring Derrida. There seems little doubt that many of them were swayed, not by their knowledge of contemporary philosophy, but by the sense that the incident was becoming something of an embarrassment to the University. In any case, the final vote was in favour of the award, which Derrida duly received at a ceremony at Cambridge.

If analytic philosophers feel aggrieved by this, they may at least reflect that Derrida’s passionate polemics in France about the importance of teaching philosophy at all levels of education must, in this age of closing philosophy departments in British universities, be one topic on which the two traditions can be in agreement.


Myths and Truths

DEAR EDITOR: Richard Taylor’s article on Religion and Truth (Philosophy Now, issue 47) offers a clear and concise description of modern, mainstream American religion. Reflective people are seeking an elucidation of religious teachings and images that will move not merely their emotions and intellect, but their imagination as well. Somewhere between early childhood and adulthood, many have lost the sensitivity of imagination as a means of perceiving truth. Taylor explains this kind of truth as ambiguous and rooted in mystery. It is a perception that has been taught out of modern people as truth is relegated to the empirical, to what is scientifically verified. People have been afraid to allow the imagination to ‘perceive truth’ this way out of fear of being labelled ‘emotional and irrational’ because science, religion and even certain schools of philosophy have rendered the imagination sterile in seeking a greater understanding of the world and the human condition. Taylor states in his article, “literalism, and the urge to reduce religious myth to clearly and rationally understood claims, always amounts to trivialization.” Literalism results in the dulling of religious understanding, especially for young people. Myths speak to us personally and interiorly as we reflect on concepts of meaning, justification for actions, purpose in life and other such subjective qualities. These are, after all, spiritual qualities. Myths are wonderfully appropriate ways of focusing our attention on these qualities. It does not serve the purpose of the individual to have the myth dissected and interpreted for her by a well-meaning authority figure. It merely serves the organizational purposes of a particular social construct.

In a sense, Taylor’s idea of the trivialization of myth through literalism can be considered in light of Kierkegaard’s concept of faith. Faith for Kierkegaard is reified substantively through angst, or the dread one experiences when one is brought to focus on the reality of one’s mortality and responsibility in life. The hand of God for Kierkegaard is unbearable, causing despair and dread, but deeply touching the subject’s sense of purpose and meaning. A concentrated focus on one’s experience of life, as construed and interpreted through the images constituted in myths, can have the substantive benefit of orienting one’s life toward higher purposes. Seen this way, faith is what gives a person resolve to order their life toward dignity and meaning in spite of apparently pointless violence and nihilistic societal propensities. The Christian Church is of course a social construct. It was born of human action in time and space to make a particular mark on society. It is also a multifaceted mural of diverse peoples who understand and interpret reality in often contradictory ways. This is what it is to be human and to be socialized in a distinct place, with distinct mores and practices. This is good and is an inherent part of our dignity. If Taylor is right and fundamentalism and secularism both miss the point, the reasonable course would be the middle way of respect and discourse. The myths by which we live can come alive when rational people agree to sit together and experience them freely and imaginatively.


Debate Warms Up

DEAR EDITOR: I must say that I was very disappointed with Stuart Greenstreet’s article Plato’s Warning. While his understanding of global warming is faultless, his understanding of democracy is certainly lacking.

For centuries Western society has sought to emulate the tenets of Plato’s Republic. All modern democracies attempt to strike a balance between liberty and power, precisely because of the fear of the vox populi – that you can’t trust the people with the freedom of choice because they will certainly make a bad one. This is a highly condescending attitude, and while Plato may echo it, it doesn’t pay attention to modern realities. It is for exactly this reason that Stuart Greenstreet’s essay falls short, because of its unbelievable naiveté regarding the nature of power and the modern democratic state.

At a time when more people are more educated about global warming, more concerned about its effects, and more vocal about the need to do something, governments – both in Britain and in the United States – have chosen to go against popular opinion. They are insulated from the public and confident in their ability to diffuse public concerns over the four years that they have in office. Governments, bought and sold by powerful corporate interests and under increasing pressure from pro-corporate international bodies such as the WTO and the IMF have chosen to bend over backwards to defend corporate interests before the populations they are sworn to protect. In the future Stuart Greenstreet might do better to investigate the effects of moneyed power on the democratic process rather than indulge in simplistic and elitist notions about average people and their inability to make rational collective decisions.


Threats to Democracy

DEAR EDITOR: I read your issue on Democracy and the State with great interest and some fellow-feeling. I was, however, surprised to find that no mention was made of the two greatest threats to present democracy. The first is that of terrorism. Terrorism, threatening and harming the masses to attain an end, only makes sense under a democratic system where fear could manipulate the people to topple the government and force a change of political direction. Spain has proved that this can work. The second is the loss of effective power. The politicians cannot do what they want because they will be removed by the people. The people cannot have done what they want because their vote is swallowed up by ‘representative voting systems’ and the bland ‘package deals’ offered by the few parties they have to choose from in the first place. If the people do not have the power and the politicians do not have it, does anyone have it at all? This could all be enlarged upon but you have asked us to keep the letters short and the themes are adequately covered in the work of Jean Baudrillard. Perhaps Democracy is done for as it stands but what shall follow? There can be no way back to what once was.


Evolution and God

DEAR EDITOR: As a new reader of Philosophy Now I read Issue 47 with great interest. As your contributor Steve Stewart-Williams is a lecturer, and William Rowe a professor, of philosophy, I assume that their arguments against the existence of God are standard philosophical sentiments, and perfectly acceptable as a point of view. However, when Stewart-Williams asks the question, ‘Can an Evolutionist Believe in God?’ he seems to me to suggest that acceptance of a rational scientific theory makes it impossible for anyone to believe in God. This to my mind is confusing chalk with cheese, or attempting to evaluate the colour blue by measuring the weight of the tube of paint. When Jesus gave sight to the man born blind, some of the Pharisees tried to convince the man and his parents that they were mistaken. The man admitted that he could not counter their rational arguments, but this in no way removed the fact, “Once I was blind, now I see!” Can an evolutionist believe in God? Of course he can, but not on scientific criteria. Faith is, as the theologian Paul Tillich said, an encounter with ultimate reality in which one is grasped by the Spirit, that is, the Spirit grasps the man, and may do so despite his rational cogitation.

I fully expect at least one evolutionist among your readers to declare that he believes in God, but that he cannot explain his faith satisfactorily to a scientist like Stewart-Williams.

May I conclude by saying that I greatly enjoy your magazine, and the breadth of subjects covered in each Issue.


DEAR EDITOR: Steve Stewart-Williams (Issue 47) questions whether a concept of God can be consistent with evolutionist presumptions. His reductionist approach, if applied to any complex physical phenomena such as light or atomic structure would probably conclude that they cannot exist because the rules that they follow are counter intuitive. Since there are circumstances when light does not behave like a stream of particles, this cannot be a true description of it; since there are circumstances when it does not behave as a wave, then it cannot be a wave. We can only conclude that it is neither. In modern science time, space, energy and mass cannot be separated from the mystery of their mutuality, it would not be inconsistent if God is perceived similarly as composed in a mysterious way of spirit, personal, parental identity and human understanding.

Stewart-Williams’ consideration attaches much importance to “the problem of evil” in evolutionary biology which he associates with the perishing of many organisms “miserably” which are unsuccessful mutations. Surely the ‘problem’ is to find a basis for any concern about this, or any other matter of judgement, choice, ethics or sentiment. The only purpose or intent Williams offers within the evolutionary model is that of replicating one’s genes.

An important mystery to be explained is the justification for animals to live, unlike the mayfly, beyond the days of procreation. In a world competing for resources such survival is evolutionarily evil, an anomaly acting against maximum gene replication. And ‘beyond procreation’ is not only a feature of physiology but is also the realm of activity and experiences which includes enjoyment, exhilaration and social choices. Perhaps that is where the numinous creeps in and in that territory Williams may find a place for some conceptions of God.


DEAR EDITOR: In his attempt to establish that the theory of evolution is incompatible with religious belief, Steve Stewart-Williams (Issue 47) claims that the controversy which it first aroused is typically seen by historians of science as a ‘battle between science and religion.’ While some opposition was based on religious beliefs, most historians have long since abandoned the ‘warfare’ model. The truth is much more complex.

The Harvard botanist Asa Gray, an orthodox Christian, was Darwin’s chief supporter in the North America where he was not alone among scientists of similar religious convictions. He and Darwin engaged in a long correspondence though Darwin was never able to grasp his point of view on religious matters.

Nor was Darwin’s support restricted to scientists. The Princeton Seminary professor, B.B. Warfield, whose writings on the subject I have recently read, always accepted the possibility of the genealogical continuity of humans with earlier species. Being familiar with animal breeding, he was at first quite open to Darwin’s mechanism of natural selection though he became less certain of its adequacy as he followed the ensuing debate. This debate, which was of a scientific nature, was resolved only after Warfield’s death with the emergence of the neo-Darwinian synthesis in the 1920’s.

There was an area of contention, however. These men saw the theory as compatible with ultimate purpose whereas others did not. But this issue goes far beyond what the science itself can tell us.


Keeping Art Alive

DEAR EDITOR: I agree with Christopher Perricone’s argument in Issue 46 that, as with the insoluble mind/body problem, we can never “specify how aesthetic materials are responsible for aesthetic qualities and art experience.” Let’s carry Perricone’s phenomenological position forward, considering not only the audience but also how artists themselves experience their art works. Unlike the audience, I think the artist experiences both materials and the final work as an inseparable unity. Therefore we might conclude that the audience could share in that experience through formal study of artistic materials and procedures. In my view, however, when it comes to materials. artist and audience still differ fundamentally.

Artistry begins with aesthetic sensitivity, developed through years of training and practice with materials into an ongoing artistic sensibility realized in creative expression as art works. The audience does not take this particular life journey. The artist has epiphanies and insights, immediately grasping materials themselves as nascent art works. Michelangelo sees the human figure in a slab of marble; Beethoven hears a symphonic movement in the four-note ‘fate knocking at the door’ motive. Or in the Eroica symphony, the initial theme and the whole sweep of the opening movement are inseparable, even though Beethoven’s sketchbooks show his struggle with the theme before realizing this unity. If you dismiss my view as ‘artist as genius’ romanticism, you’ll still need another ontological explanation for the art work’s coming into being (perhaps as refined engineering?).

In music, 20th century composers focus increasingly on musical timbre and, in John Cage and after, sounds and silences in themselves. Processes and patterns take centre stage as chance procedures, minimalism, fractals. Materials are worn on the art work’s sleeve; this is Husserl’s ‘To the things themselves’ with a vengeance. The audience supposedly shares the artist’s experience of materials as put forward in the art work itself. But there is still a problem. While the artist may indeed experience such materials as a pile of wood on the floor or the sounds of ball bearings dropping as art, and present them as an art work, the audience may find its experience to be impoverished or even ludicrous and not art at all. To the audience, materials and experience remain dissociated as Perricone says.

Turning to the academic and professional arts worlds, most teaching, criticism and scholarship still assumes a smooth ride from the formal study of materials to the experience of art works. As both an academic and a professionally trained composer, I find this assumption untenable. For the composer, thinking about art may instead take the form of cryptic statements, metaphors, or paradoxes. I’m in a world where everything connects to everything, lit up by omniscient createdness, the emergence into being of something from nothing. I sense wonder and awe when the work takes on its own life. I avoid reductionist explanation – “it all boils down to x” – that drowns the artistic essence. Some of this thinking derives from George Steiner who in Real Presences names our current desuetude ‘A Secondary City.’ In its stead he imagines a ban on all scholarship and criticism of art beyond basic editing. People would attend to the real thing and cherish art experience over elevated talk and writing. Perhaps then we would be ‘keeping art alive.’


Why Mistakes Matter

DEAR EDITOR: With all due respect for scientific method, and with a full awareness of the fruitless logic-chopping that is all too often a characteristic of philosophical argument, I believe Mike Alder (Issue 46) has not done justice to philosophy It would be easy enough to point out that, while the concept of a ‘right’ cannot be defined in algebra, this does not make it ‘unfit for serious consideration’; indeed until we have a serious interest in a concept, we have no need to define it, algebraically or otherwise.

But apart from this, Mr Alder dismisses too easily the criticism that his programs cannot make mistakes. The concept of ‘mistake’ involves an element of self-criticism, which was nowhere evident in Mr Alder’s description of his procedure. If I add a column of numbers up twice, and get a different answer each time, I will assume I have made a mistake; I will add them up again or get someone else to do it, to find out where I went wrong. Either way it is my judgment, or the procedure I am using, that I am questioning. My program is self-checking. Is Mr Alder’s? Until it is, it makes perfect sense to say his programs do not make mistakes.


Islamic Philosophers & Theologians

DEAR EDITOR: The characterization of the Mutazilites (in the pink box on p.13) is misleading if not incorrect. While they were exponents of rationalism within Islamic ‘sciences,’ they were first and foremost theologians (mutakallimun), not philosophers, however much their rationalism was (and is) compatible with falsafa. Their disputes with the Ash’arites were of a theological sort, despite the fact that both sides employed philosophical arguments. Neither theological school believed Islam could be usefully analyzed with conceptual apparatus derived from classical Greek philosophy, Peripatetic or otherwise (e.g. Neo-Platonic). As Oliver Leaman writes in An Introduction to Islamic Philosophy (2002 ed.), “in rejecting philosophy the theologians were not rejecting reason; on the contrary, they were enthusiastic concerning the value of reason when employed in a suitably domesticated context.” The ‘domesticated context’ referred to here allows them to invoke rationalist methods and criteria for Islamic purposes. The philosophers cited: Al-Kindi, Al-Farabi, Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd, were not Mutazilites. Moreover, their translations and commentaries weren’t always on Aristotelian works proper, but included works wrongly attributed to Aristotle but of Neo-Platonic provenance. These philosophers helped ‘save’ classical Greek philosophy in the West and their impact reverberated far beyond Aquinas. Indeed, Ibn Rushd might well be viewed as a ‘medieval precursor of the European Enlightenment’ (see Mourad Wahba and Mona Abousenna, eds., Averroes and the Enlightenment, Prometheus, 1996).

Readers wanting an introduction to Islamic philosophy should consult, in addition to Leaman’s book above, his very helpful A Brief Introduction to Islamic Philosophy (Blackwell, 1999), and Seyyed Hossein Nasr and Oliver Leaman, eds., History of Islamic Philosophy (Routledge, 1996). The latter contains absolutely essential essays by some of the leading lights in the contemporary study of Islamic philosophy. Works by Majid Fakhry are also standard and quite useful. My bibliography for Islamic Studies, available at several university library sites (in the fields of Middle East and Islamic Studies), contains a section on Islamic philosophy, and can be accessed at Islamic Philosophy Online: http://www.muslimphilosophy.com/ (under ‘General Information:’ scroll down to ‘Bibliography’).

All that said, I’m most appreciative of any attempt to treat this or that aspect of Islamic philosophy.


DNA, Explanation & the God Gambit

DEAR EDITOR: The elucidation of the concept of explanation is a traditional topic in philosophy of science. The following equation can represent an explanation:

D + x = E

in which D is some data for which we wish to find an explanation; x is a variable representing information that we use to answer the problem, and E is the case in which the explanation is fulfilled. The information can be of different types: it can arise from ordinary contexts or from scientific contexts. What makes information scientific is (1) the fact that it was tested with a methodology that assesses its accuracy, its strength, its truth, and (2) the fact that scientific information makes use of physical entities or of entities that are under physical constraints (e.g. a biological process is under thermodynamic constraints). Ordinary information can vary enormously; there are many unscientific explanations that use natural or supernatural – magical or religious – information. e.g. if we wish to explain war, a candidate to replace x would be human sin; if we wish to explain Mary’s headaches, a candidate would be a curse by a magician.

Professor Flew’s letter in Issue 47 of Philosophy Now gives us a chance to examine the kind of argument that he is developing: given that at present we have not information about the chemical generation of DNA, and given the massive amount of peculiar circumstances that such generation would need, we cannot have a complete physical explanation of this. To think of that process as a natural process is therefore nonsense. Hence, he implies, there was necessarily a Designer and then we have a proof of God’s existence. At least, Prof. Flew’s remarks on the Socratic dictum: “We must follow the argument wherever it leads” seem to me an acceptation of this inference.

Given that an argument carries us to the place the premises said, the problem with Prof. Flew’s confession is in its assumptions. This argument seems to be that if there is no known physical explanation for the chemical origin of the first sequence of DNA, we can infer no possible physically-closed explanation for “E = the chemical origin of the first sequence of DNA”, and in this case we must inevitably fall back on a physically ‘open’ explanation by including a supernatural designer like the God of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

This move can be called the God gambit: when something is usually to be explained using physically-closed information and without reference to a deity, but the explanation fails, we make the assumption that this explanation is impossible without some designer and conclude the presence, the role, the will, of this designer.

But there is nothing in the logic of explanation which makes the God gambit inevitable: there is plenty of data without explanation, or plenty of incomplete explanation in spite of the little accuracy of the information we make us in the explanation, or plenty of cases in which there are at least two or more sets of information and we cannot select one of them (as an example, picking an explanation for the failure of England football team in the last three World Cups). In fact a successfully accepted explanation, involving no problematic information, is an exception and not the norm.

It is possible that the final explanation would use physically open information (or vice versa that the final explanation would discredit all physically-open explanation); there is no logical constraint to any of these possibilities, but it is impossible to infer this from the actual lack of information tested and granted in a cognitive domain like organic chemistry.

From my point of view the rejection of the God gambit doesn’t compel us to an atheist position; on the contrary one can became a genuine believer by faith, by extraordinary experiences, by example from saintly people, by agony, but never by the peculiarities of organic chemistry.


The ‘Ism’

DEAR EDITOR: I would to take issue with your pocket definition of Theism, which you say is the belief in a personal god who has supernaturally revealed himself to humanity. Theism does indeed believe in a personal god who is not only a creator but who also cares about how we behave. However, it does not believe that this god has revealed himself to humanity in the normally accepted sense of that word – i.e. through some divine text or through a figure like Moses, Jesus or Muhammad. The most that could be claimed for him is that he has endowed humans with the power of reason which should reveal to them how God would want them to behave. Deism is the belief that reason should tell us that there must be a creator, but that we have no cause to believe that he is a personal god who is concerned about what how we behave.


This site uses cookies to recognize users and allow us to analyse site usage. By continuing to browse the site with cookies enabled in your browser, you consent to the use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy. X