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Epistles to the Philosophers • Computing Conscience • Lost In Time • Taking Liberties • Piece of Mind

Issue 78, with its focus on the new atheists, generated a sackload of letters. Sorry to the many ‘God correspondents’ who, for lack of space, aren’t printed here. The debate will continue, no doubt.

Epistles to the Philosophers

DEAR EDITOR:Michael Antony’s essay ‘Where’s The Evidence?’ in PN 78 was very interesting to me, having been pretty much convinced of Antony Flew’s point about who has the burden of proof in the theism v. atheism dispute. One way I put the point is by imagining that someone tells me there are three-legged ducks living onMars.Well, I would assume he would have to meet the burden of proof instead of me having to show there are none. Similarly, when someone tells me God exists, I would be on a sound footing asking that this be shown instead of my having to disprove it. Proving there is no God would require my having to canvas all the conceptions of God and all the ways something could exist, and eliminating them all: an impossible task I don’t deserve having placed on me.

There is also the matter of the prosecutor having to make the case against the defendant rather than the defendant having to prove innocence. The prosecutor would have an idea of the crime, the place, the suspect, etc, while the suspect would have to fish around endlessly to figure out what needs to be disproven. From this, I believe, we arrive at the sensible result that suspects don’t have to scurry around disproving accusations. This has become a point of due process.


DEAR EDITOR: Thank you for articles on whether God is Really Dead. But instead of the expected philosophical critique of different ideas of God, I was surprised to find a mostly sociological discussion of the customs of various Christian tribes, as if Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, Jews and Muslims weren’t part of the discussion. The articles were notable for what, as Sherlock Holmes would say, they didn’t discuss – namely, what the word ‘God’ might actually mean, since this is central to any philosophical rationale for theism, and, by extension, for atheism.

The fundamental question is whether the conventional idea of an all-powerful God is intellectually credible. Perhaps the most philosophically sophisticated argument for one God is Thomas Aquinas’ argument for the existence of a Neo-Platonic, semi-Aristotelian Perfect, Omniscient, all-Good, all-Powerful Prime Mover – a Being who could create a whole universe out of nothing and continue to govern it. This idea of God is the consensus produced after centuries of intense, often violent debate among the Eastern andWestern Fathers of Christian thought, long after Christ died. Notwithstanding those centuries of debate, Aquinas argued, in what may be the greatest piece of philosophical theology ever written, that there are rational proofs for ‘His’ existence based on empirical evidence of his sensible effects in creating the universe.

Aquinas was wrong, for several reasons. The first problem is that his idea of an infinitely powerful and good God had neo-Platonic rather than Christian roots. No Biblical citation Aquinas adduced remotely sufficed to make a rational case for his neo-Platonic Idea of God. It is rather a construct created several centuries after Christ, and not a very credible one at that. In contrast the Biblical God was the highly personal leader of a elect, holy people. Furthermore, the neo-Platonic metaphysical Idea, God, by definition transcends all possible experience, so there can be no empirical test adequate to ascertain whether It exists or not, as Kant correctly noted. So any arguments from empirical knowledge of the ‘effects’ of God’s creative act fall flat.

While the articles ignored the question whether the idea of God can be understood by humans, Aquinas didn’t. Instead he argued, correctly, that our limited minds cannot understand the idea of an infinitely powerful and good God. But it undermines his argument for his neo-Platonically-defined God. The argument is classic: namely, the irresolvable contradiction of an infinitely benign Providence overseeing the countless suffering and crimes humans commit – history’s never-ending tales of murder, rape (including the sexual abuse of youths by Christian clerics), lies, theft, and all manner of atrocity, injustice, not to forget plain stupidity. Belief becomes solely a matter of faith, because no rational argument remotely suffices to solve this problem. (Evolution by contrast, I note, is far more intelligible and compatible with a benignly-creative divinity).

Anselm, who shared this mind-boggling idea of God with Aquinas, got one point right. The real issue was what we mean by God. And so the real question underlying atheism is not sociological, but theological: namely, one’s idea of God. In sociological fact, humans don’t believe in the neo-Platonic God. On the contrary, humans typically worship all kinds of gods, whom they invoke in hope of bringing a modicum of moral and cosmic order to this otherwise unintelligible and unjust world. But such limited divinities are utterly different from the medieval theologian’s infinitely powerful and good God. Moreover, they are compatible with all manner of empirical tests, which they usually fail. Nonetheless, if we define divinities as beings which enjoy greater powers than humans do, they probably exist somewhere in the cosmos. That species of greater intelligence and morality than humans exist is not only consistent, it’s likely. Some may even have visited this planet and tried, futilely, to instill some sanity and justice in homo allegedly sapiens.

Finally, a friendly postcript to believers. Don’t fall for all this philosophical guff. Christ, Isaiah, Muhammad, like Buddha, had much more interesting things to do, and to urge us to do, than engage in futile philosophical discussions about how many universes can dance in the mind of some supposedly infinite ‘God’.


DEAR EDITOR: Speaking as a Christian, I would like to make a few comments about the article ‘What’s New About The New Atheism?’ by Victor Stenger.

I found reading Professor Stenger a strange and mentally disjunctive experience! He is obviously a fabulously intelligent man, but he wields his intellect like a Scottish broadsword in a nursery. But I suppose that is the nature of his understanding of what he is more than happy to call the New Atheism. I personally experienced a dramatic conversion to Christ in 1979 at the age of 22, as a result of impassioned prayer and totally uninformed Bible reading. Previous to this I was what I’ve always referred to as a ‘militant atheist’, never missing an opportunity to expose the ridiculous superstition of others’ faith. So, it would appear that, according to Prof. Stenger’s definition I was a New Atheist, in the 1970s. Like it says in some old book, “There’s nothing new under the sun.”

“It’s a mystery” is obviously not an answer to anyone seeking a justification for faith. However, we ‘New Christians’ are not in that place. It is not hunger that makes the meal, but what we eat. In the same way, it is not faith that makes the religion, but the object of the faith. If the object of the faith (trust) is real, it’s all true. If it isn’t, it isn’t. Sadly, it will always appear to any third party as a ‘mystery’.

As I see it, the biggest problem Prof. Stenger has is an emotionally-charged misdefinition of the Christian faith – for examples: “irrational beliefs”, “living in constant fear of God’s disapproval”, “blatantly arrogant in its unselfcritical commitment to unfounded certainties and dogmas.” If “the message of New Atheism has been terribly misunderstood as being exclusively negative” it is not alone. True, Christian faith is an intimate personal relationship with Someone who for the moment chooses to remain unseen. There is a good reason for this. But then, what does reason have to do with it?


DEAR EDITOR: From the scientific point of view there is a justification for believing in God as creator of the universe, since the characteristics of the particles need to be so closely defined for life to have developed that it seems very reasonable to say that this could not have arisen without involvement of some superintelligence. Yet although that may justify the belief in ‘a’ God, it does not provide any route by which we can communicate with ‘Him’. After setting the initial conditions, God could have stood back and left the universe to its own devices. There is no reliable independent evidence for the interaction of God in the development of the universe, or in human history. Such ‘evidence’ as may be quoted is based on the testimony of individuals who inevitably have an agenda. There are no clearly independent witnesses. Events may have happened as requested in prayer, but they might have happened like that anyway!

In the light of the above thoughts, the question remains: what is God? It is a word that has been used in different ways by many societies, and different philosophies and moralities have been developed to match to the requirements attributed to these Gods. One explanation of this is that each God and the associated religion and morality developed to reflect the conscience to which a society aspired. They are therefore social constructs. This does not detract from the value of these Gods and the associated religions to individuals or their societies, but it does remove the supernatural element. It also removes any absolute claim of a religion to being necessarily true and others false. One would argue rather in the terms of the suitability of religions to the needs of people and their societies. In this way, religions can be appreciated as dynamic and developing understandings of the world, rather than as an adherence to some predetermined protocol of belief and behaviour. Such a view provides a valid basis for the development of personal and social morality and conscience.


DEAR EDITOR: One can approach the question of atheism vs theism by thinking about culture.We need cultural tramlines to ease our daily lives. They’re only conventions, and people like Dawkins question and renew them. Nevertheless, without the coordinating effects of convention, the whole of society would be severely disabled.

There are an infinity of possible cultural conventions and moral codes; but tribes are competitive, and so there is a natural selection of cultures, which ensures that only those codes of behaviour most appropriate for tribal success are selected. Darwin pointed this out in The Descent of Man (1871). Bigger and bigger political groupings are built from family, village and local authority, on up to kingdom or empire. At each level, the cultural code is enshrined in leadership whose heroic status and splendour rises in ever increasing steps, until, at the kingdom level, the invention of God as the supernatural social regulator of a nation’s quasi-mind becomes irresistible. This crescendo defines God as the summit or personification of a nation’s culture. Robert Graves described this elegantly in The White Goddess (1961).

Atheism essentially denies God-based religion, but proposes no alternative cultural system. Historically, whenever religion has been denied, as in Soviet Russia for example, society has quickly grown some other coordinating ideology and hierarchy to fill the vacuum. Science is a method of establishing and advancing practical knowledge; it is too inflexible to represent a cultural figurehead. The best an atheist can aim for is to establish principles of enlightened humanism consistent with science. These would then be enshrined by nations as rules, adapted to their specific circumstances. But then we’d be back to square one: we’d have a whole new set of religions.

Arguments about the existence of God quickly get bogged down in the meanings of words. It’s obvious that a limited company exists. But though you can touch and experience its buildings and people, and though you can benefit from its products, it don’t actually exist as a physical thing. Similarly, you can’t touch a football club: it has no atoms. You can photograph its players or changing rooms, but not it. A football club is a social construct made up of agreements, contracts, performances, exploits, memo-ries, hopes and ambitions. The same is true of God. He is just as real as Manchester United, and in the same sense. So it doesn’t really get us very far to say that God doesn’t exist.

The Christian idea that we should worship a God in Heaven who wants us to eat his body and drink his blood is clearly bizarre. But promoting atheism per se is much the same as asking us to disbelieve in Manchester United.


Computing Conscience

DEAR EDITOR: In their article ‘Mathematics, Morality and Machines’ (PN 78) William Byers and Michael Schleifer incorrectly presume that we contend that computers with human-level moral capacities are possible. Indeed, we find it surprising that Byers and Schleifer presume that we believe moral judgment can be fully captured by a formal theory. In our recent book, Moral Machines: Teaching Robots Right FromWrong (OUP, 2009), and in Philosophy Now Issue 72, we were clear about the possible barriers to building moral machines. As we say on p.69 of the book, “Whether computer understanding will ever be adequate to support full moral agency remains an open question.”We do argue for the need to begin exploring strategies for implementing sensitivity to moral considerations in increasingly autonomous systems; but we have no idea how far engineers will progress over the next twenty years in this endeavor. Nor does anyone else.While we also have reservations as to whether computers and robots can be full moral agents, it is not because we are convinced by the kinds of arguments put forth by Byers and Schleifer. From John Searle’s Chinese Room, to Roger Penrose’s proposal that the human mind is a quantum computer, there is no shortage of theorists who have argued that existing computational platforms fail to capture essential features of human intelligence and mental activity, and they claim that the human mind has an essential non-rule-based, non-computable element.

That human comprehension outstrips some rule-based systems is uncontroversial. That it outstrips all rulebased algorithmic systems is less obvious to us. But even if true, it does not rule out moral machines – only full moral agents that are rule-based. Furthermore, even if we are stuck with rule-based computing systems for the foreseeable future, it doesn’t follow that there’s no advantage to trying to model successful moral reasoning and judgment in such systems. Despite human brilliance and creativity, there are rule-based, algorithmic systems capable of outperforming humans on many cognitive tasks, and which make perfectly useful tools for a variety of purposes. The fact that some tasks are currently beyond our ability to build computers to do them well only shows that more work is necessary to build machines that are sensitive to the ‘almost imperceptible’ (but necessarily perceptible!) cues that current computational models fail to exploit, but to which humans are exquisitely attuned (Byers and Schleifer talk about the game of bridge). In the fields of affective computing and sociable robotics, there are many scientists working on strategies that facilitate sensitivity to such cues and which may also contribute to more skillful judgments. However, as before, even if there were a mathematically-provable limit to the capacity of machines to replicate human judgment, this does not undermine the need to implement the best kind of functional morality possible.

Throughout Moral Machines we question whether ethics can be reduced to logic or reason. If Byers and Schleifer look at the approaches we offer, they may find they have more in common with our position than they have presumed.


Lost In Time

DEAR EDITOR: Raymond Tallis’ article in Issue 77 on time travel was interesting, but I think he failed to demonstrate his central point, that “we should not waste our time speculating about the possibility of time travel.” He claimed to have proved this thesis by pointing out the paradoxes and contradictions that time travel seems to entail. I would propose the opposite – that it is these very paradoxes which make contemplating time travel worthwhile. It is the attempt to solve paradoxes, or to reconcile seemingly contradictory things, that brings out the best in both philosophy and science. Tallis also claimed that his objections to time travel, which focused on traveling backward in time, “also apply to travel into the future.” I would think that nothing could be clearer than that we are all constantly traveling into the future. But even in the more traditional idea of time travel, traveling into the future seems relatively easy. If we could master cryogenic freezing, it seems obvious that we could travel into the distant future by freezing ourselves, being revitalized at a specific date in the future.

No, the possibility of time travel is certainly a worthwhile concept to contemplate, as Tallis obviously has spent time doing himself.


DEAR EDITOR: In Issue 77 Professor Tallis claims that if he were able to travel back in time he could interfere with the past in such a way as to prevent his own existence from coming about. I suggest that precisely the opposite is the case: he will certainly travel back in time, because in doing so he will create the very conditions that make his existence possible. For although he doesn’t (and didn’t) realise it, it was in fact he who introduced his parents to each other.

It will be seen from this that his other arguments are also fallacious. There are not two versions of the date he travels back to or the date he departs from. The date he will travel back to is the very date that has already occurred. And his travelling back will not alter anything about the present date, since this is what brought the present date about exactly as it is.

It is however true that for him there will be no clear distinction between the present and the past. If, after he has travelled back in time, Professor Tallis looks back on his earlier life, he will find that part of it is in the future. This is quite consistent with the fusion of General Relativity theory and quantum mechanics that will take place in 2022. If the Professor rejects hypertime as an ‘impossible conception’, it shows that he has failed to grasp the implications of modern physics. Quantum mechanics requires you to accept a dozen impossible things before breakfast, including, in one interpretation, time travel. It is also true that because the Professor has already travelled back in time, we have all relinquished aspects of what we think of as free will, at least until he has completed the loop, as we all have to act in a way consistent with the Professor travelling back in time at a future date. An interesting fact is that Professor Tallis is currently two different people, since his future self, who has travelled back in time is still alive. True, he’s rather old, but future medicine is a marvellous thing! However, his older self is even more closely governed by partial determinism than the rest of us. He cannot, for instance, do anything that would cause Quantum Relativity Theory to be discovered before 2022; and there’s no way he could remember the article he wrote in his younger life for Issue 77 and dictate it to his younger self so that it could appear in that issue. There is virtually nothing the older Professor can do relating to his existence before he travelled back in time. This being so, it is unlikely that he even remembers his life before he travelled, or the fact of travelling. This could explain why he has not declared himself publicly as a time traveller.

Incidentally, there is another form of time travel which the Professor mentioned, but paid insufficient attention to. It is the ‘Groundhog Day’ scenario, in which the whole universe resets itself to a previous date. In fact, this is precisely what is going to happen in the year 2043, when global ecological and economic collapse will be such that the Horsemen of the Apocalypse will ride forth. The whole universe will revert to the year 4004 BCE, the date calculated for the beginning of the world by Dr Lightfoot and Bishop Ussher. (So both the scientists and the creationists are right!)We will then all go round again and again until we work out how to live properly. So far we are on the 8,237th loop. You may not believe me, but you will have difficulty in proving that I am wrong.


DEAR EDITOR: Raymond Tallis in PN 77 is right to dismiss time travel as relying on the solipsistic requirement that the adventurer must be ‘causally insulated’ from everything else. But I am at a loss to understand why he feels the need to pick a quarrel with Minkowski. If Tallis were to keep completely motionless in his own private stationary spacetime with Killing Vector symmetry, then the velocity of everything else in the universe could be measured relative to him. However he himself could neither speak nor write about any of it. Any change in his reference frame, or that of any one of his readers, would affect the time. But that would be his time, not ours, for time runs at different rates for differently located observers.When he says “Unlike time, length does not exist in itself” he implies that time is essentially physical, that is, has an external reality. Hence he locates his reference frame not only before Einstein, but even before Kant, for whom time is “not a property of things-in-themselves but a condition of human sensibility.”


Taking Liberties

DEAR EDITOR: I’d like to thank you for dedicating Issue 76 to John Stuart Mill. I spent the next two weekends reading On Liberty. I came to the United States nineteen years ago from the Soviet Union, and after a few years struggling for survival turned to religion and philosophy in a search for ideas that could feed my soul, unsatisfied by either the hypocrisy of the Marxist creed or the crass materialist rat race. I always suspected that there was more to my new home country than meets the eye. Reading On Liberty was like discovering the soul of America.

I’d like to thank Erica Stonestreet for her ‘On Individuality’. Her metaphor for life, of steering versus drifting in a boat, is very powerful, as the quest for material needs often does turn people into drifters, and the older we get the harder it is to learn the steering skills to change course.

The article by Drs Chris and Delilah Caldwell considers whether Holocaust denial ought to be eligible for freedom of speech. I’d like to argue that this idea is more dangerous than it seems. It is a horrible thing to live with the knowledge that your ancestors participated in the Holocaust, approved of it, or stood by while it happened. Holocaust denial can erase the bloodstain from the European psyche as if it were a bad dream. And if you believe it, you can also believe that every preceding pogrom never happened either; and the African slave trade never happened, as well as any other atrocity perpetrated by ‘civilized people’. This is such an attractive proposition that for some it won’t give historical truth a chance to compete. So the freedom of speech is not really free when a lie is so much more attractive than the truth.


Piece of Mind

DEAR EDITOR: I would like to thank the commentators on my article about psychology. Let me clarify a few points.

1. Psychology is certainly not the cause of mental and social problems, nor can it be the cure for all of them. However, improving psychology could help.

2. Psychology can be called a science in the wider sense. In the narrower sense for which the physical sciences are paradigmatic, ‘science’ cannot accommodate some important psychological approaches, such as introspection.

3. I appreciate the value of studies of brain functions or of behaviour; but to assume this covers the whole subject of psychology is to play Hamlet without the prince.

4. The human studies share with the physical sciences many methodological approaches, including attention to contexts.My major point is that focusing on contexts plays an important part in the understanding of human beings. The crux of my argument is this: There is an important methodological difference between the study of human beings and purely physical objects, because vital evidence in the human case consists of communication, in answers to interview questionnaires etc. Yet a psychological approach which accepts communications as naïve facts is misleading and flawed because it ignores lying, self-indoctrination and misunderstanding. This is where Hermeneutics comes in. Hermeneutics is not, as one correspondent implies, a definitive search for truth, but a method for clarifying the meaning of statements. It is this critical scrutiny of communications which needs to supplement the other methods of psychology for it to gain reliability and value.


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