Can we apply Karl Popper’s ideas to the creationist debate?

Lynsey asked:

Debates between evolutionary biologists and ‘scientific creationists’ have been famously unproductive, with each side employing distinct criteria of judgement. Can the philosophy of science proposed by Karl Popper resolve the impasse for objective rational bystanders and if so, how?

Answer by Shaun Williamson

I don’t know why you talk of ‘scientific’ creationists because there are no such people. The aim of evolutionary scientists has always been to answer certain questions such as the age of the earth, the history of life on earth etc. The creationists have no such aims. They try to pick holes in the theory of evolution but fail to offer any alternative theory which is supported by good factual evidence.

Science is not an alternative form of religion, scientists get their answers to questions by looking at the physical evidence and finding the best explanation that fits the facts. That is what they are supposed to do as scientists. There are no special scientific answers to questions. There are just answers supported by all the known evidence (evolution) and answers supported by no good evidence (Creationism and Intelligent Design).

Any objective rational observer who looks as the evidence should have no trouble in deciding who the evidence supports. If they can’t then Karl Popper is unlikely to help. There is no idea or belief no matter how crazy that is not believed by some people.

The aim of the debate is not to convince the irrational creationists that they are wrong, it is simply to ensure that creationism is not taught in school science classes as though it is some alternative science. It just isn’t science and it never can be. Creationists and Intelligent Design pundits will use any form of legal trickery to get their beliefs into school science classes.

In any case the debate is not what is important, it is the science that is important. Most of the people who ask questions about evolution here have never studied the theory and have no clear grasp of what it contains and what the evidence is for it.

Yes certainly people employ different criteria of judgement but that doesn’t mean that creationists are an alternative sort of scientist. After all the insane have different criteria for their judgements but that doesn’t cause us to lose any sleep, nor do we think that Karl Popper could help the insane.

When you go to your doctor for medical treatment you don’t expect him to refer to the Bible for an answer. When you go to a class about the history of life on earth you don’t expect the teacher to get the answers out of the Bible.

If you are unsure which side is right in this debate then you should study the theory of evolution and learn exactly what questions Darwin asked and what answers he proposed for them. Evolution is a complex theory and it requires serious study. Just listening to what people say in debates or reading Karl Popper will not teach you anything about evolution and the overwhelming amount of evidence that supports it. At the same time you can also study creationism and wonder about the overwhelming lack of evidence to support any of the creationist claims.

Do you agree with Nietzsche that God is dead?

Gungea asked:

According to Nietzsche, God is dead. How far do you agree with his view?

Answer by Eric George

‘God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.’, so wrote Friedrich Nietzsche, the 19th Century German Philosopher whose brilliant Philosophical treatises still remain the subject of relentless observation, interpretation and most of all; controversy. By ‘God is dead’ Nietzsche expresses not that God does not exist per se, nor even that God is dead as an idea but rather Nietzsche argues that since an individual does not need God to be a morally-sound person, therefore God is not needed in society thereby rendering God, whether he exists or not as non opus, or as a flip of Trotsky’s statement would echo ‘As a theological ash heap in the dust bin of history’.

We meet the climactic altitude of irony however, when the argument for morality and God pronounces itself in the ear of Nietzsche as follows: one does not need God to be morally-sound, yes, but that is besides the point. The essential argument here is that if God does not exist, then moral absolutes do not exist – nature, culture and society determine what is morally right and what is morally wrong. This follows that a ‘moral act and an ‘immoral’ act must be treated equivalently since the standard against which such acts must be weighed by is totally subjective. It matters not in the end whether one lives a life according to piety or according to barbarism, both are right and equally valid.

Bertrand Russell personifies this ever so clearly when he stated the following, after being asked in an interview in 1959 as to what he would want the future generations of the world to grasp on to, ‘I should say love is wise, hatred is foolish.’ Russell, like Nietzsche was consistent with his world view. Loving someone is not right or moral, it is merely ‘wise’. In turn, Hating someone is not necessarily wrong or immoral, it is merely ‘foolish’. There is nothing essentially wrong with Hitlers views, it is equal with Teresa’s; such a world that exists to perish can produce only the comfort of despair.

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

How far do YOU agree with this view?

Who or what is God?

When you ask questions like this you cannot assume that everyone understands your question without knowing what your presuppositions are.

There may be a million different ideas of ‘God’ bandied around in the world. So which is yours?

But I will offer this hint: Nietzsche is not speaking about ‘God’.

He is speaking about YOU, your beliefs and how you exercise your rationality in the pursuit of a way of life that should enable you to wear the title of a ‘moral agent’.

He is asking you to examine what you think God is.

Deciding who should get a heart transplant

Jose asked:

There is a doctor, a janitor, a waiter, a professor, a judge, and a bus driver. They all go to the hospital in need of a heart transplant. There is only one heart available. Who should get the transplant? And who actually gets the transplant.

Answer by Craig Skinner

Who actually gets it?

In the UK this depends on who is a tissue-type match for the organ. If only one of the patients matches, she gets the heart. If more than one match, the patient highest up the transplant waiting list gets it. There is a common waiting list for NHS and private patients (you cant jump the waiting list by paying for the heart). The patient’s occupation (if any) is irrelevant. Likewise social circumstances.

Who should get it ?

The UK setup seems pretty ethical. The ethic is Kantian rather than Consequentialist. Thus, there is no attempt to work out which saved patient would contribute most to overall societal benefit considered in an impartial way. Rather each patient’s life, if not of absolute value in a Kantian sense, is at least considered as of much value to that patient as any other patient’s life is to her.

Some people think other criteria should be relevant. Three examples:

1. Age. Many favour the ‘good innings’ approach (I do) – a young person should get priority over an old one (like me) because she still has much of her life ahead of her, whereas I have already lived most of a natural life span.

2. Dependents. Some favour prioritizing a person with, say, three young children, over a similar person with no children. I don’t favour this.

3. Some assurance that the patient wont ‘waste’ the new organ. Thus, some think unreformed alcoholics should be disfavoured for liver transplants. A famous example was the alcoholic former footballer, George Best, who received a liver transplant for alcoholic liver disease only to ruin his second liver with continued drinking. I’m inclined to say the patient must show evidence of being off the booze before transplant is considered. But I don’t feel strongly about it. If we held off treatment for people whose condition was their own fault we might stop rescuing climbers with broken legs because they insist on risking life and limb; stop treating car accident victims who were speeding, smokers with lung cancer, obesity-related diseases in gluttons, tennis elbow, knee injuries in rugby players and so on.

Answer by Shaun Williamson

This is a complex judgement which will have to be made by the hospital consultants. The first thing is tissue matching. The patient who is the closest biological match for the heart will be the leading candidate because they are likely to get the longest benefit from the transplant.

If more than one patient is a biological match then other factors will have to be considered such as the age of the patient or do they have a family with young children etc.

I don’t know who gets the transplant, I’m not a senior hospital transplant doctor and I don’t have enough information about the patients.

Who can call himself a spiritual philosopher?

Duke asked:

Philosophy is about humans experience of every day living. every body
over 60 years old is a philosopher of his own experiences and
understand more about life than any young graduate of this generation
will ever know.

My question is, who can call himself a spiritual philosopher?
Don’t you have to be dead to be a spiritual philosopher like you say?

Answer by Tony Fahey

Hi Duke, the first thing that must be said is that not everyone who has reached the age of sixty can be called a philosopher. Whilst I tend to avoid making generalizations, I would make the case that philosophy demands a particular form of disciplined inquiry which many prefer to leave to those who are more predisposed to such a discipline. Indeed to argue, as you do, that everybody over sixty is entitled to be called a philosopher, brings into the frame all those who, through no fault of their own, are not equipped with the mental or intellectual ability to engage in philosophical issues. Moreover, whilst I agree that worldly wisdom, in some instances, can be one of the benefits of old age, it can equally be argued that many meaningful philosophical insights have been conceived by younger philosophers. Not least of these being Wittgenstein who was only thirty three years of age when he presented his first book, Tractatus Logico -Philosophicus to the world.

The second thing that must be said is that one certainly does not have to be dead to be a spiritual philosopher. Indeed, since we cannot be sure that there is life after death, we cannot say that this line of enquiry, or, for that matter, any line of enquiry, would be open to the post-corporeal state. Moreover, I would make the case that all philosophers, even the most ardent empiricists, at one time or another in their career, engage with the relationship between spirit and matter. In fact, it might also be argued that metaphysics – that branch of philosophy concerned with that which is beyond physics, and deals with such issues as ‘Why do we exist?’, ‘Is there life after death?’, ‘Is there a God?’, and so on, is but spiritual philosophy by another name.

It may interest you to know that the term ‘spirit derives from the Latin spiritus, ‘spirit, breath’, and from spirare, ‘to breath, to blow’. And it is in this context that, under the appendage of ‘soul’, it is seen by Descartes when he describes it as ‘the breath of life which animates the human organism’.(see Patrick Quinn, Philosophy of Religion, 2005, p.206)

With regard to the issue of whether one can be a spiritual philosopher whilst alive, it should be pointed out that the history of philosophy is replete with examples of thinkers who would meet this description. As well as the most obvious example of Socrates (who took direction on whether his choices were either wise or unwise from his daemon: his ‘spiritual being or ‘inner voice’, Plato (who not only held that the soul or ‘spirit’ existed separately from the body, but also that, on the birth of the physical body, it brought with it certain knowledge that was not dependent on empirical experience), we have Boethius (who, while awaiting execution for his beliefs, was visited by the goddess Athena, who reminded him that it was in philosophy that he could find consolation for his fear of his impending demise, and, following Socrates, that philosophy was the preparation for life beyond that of the physical body).

Without continuing with the specific details of others who might be counted as ‘spiritual philosophers’, amongst those can also be said to fall under this rubric are, Aristotle, Augustine, Arius, Avicenna, Arendt, Berkeley, Chardin, Erasmus, Hegel, Levinas, Maimonides, Marcel, Spinoza, Stein, Vico, Wittgenstein, and many many more too numerous to mention.

Answer by Shaun Williamson

I have no idea what a spiritual philosopher is and I don’t want to know what one is either.

The word ‘philosopher’ as it is used on this website refers to the attempt to find truth by using reason and logic alone. This sort of rational philosophy arose in ancient Greece and it is the philosophy that is taught in Universities all over the world i.e it starts with people like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.

Philosophy is not about humans experience of every day living. You can use it in that sense if you want to but don’t expect us to agree with you. Most people are completely ignorant about the nature of philosophy but the young philosophy graduate has at least made a good start towards becoming wise because he has read some books and studied philosophy. Books are how humans pass on knowledge and wisdom, you may have heard of them.

Everybody over 60 does not understand more about life, understanding takes knowledge and knowledge takes study and hard work.

This site is often visited by hippie philosophers who want to say ‘Isn’t everyone their own philosopher?’. The answer to that is no they aren’t and being able to add up doesn’t make you a mathematician. Singing out of tune at the Karaoke bar doesn’t make you a musician either and so on.

So forget all this home grown wisdom, read some books and then read some more books. Start by reading Bertrand Russell’s one volume ‘History of Western Philosophy’ (it is available for free over the internet). This book will give you some idea of the sort of questions philosophy deals with.

Confused about Plato’s theory of forms

Jessica asked:

I am confused with Plato’s Forms? When he says that the Forms have their own world where does that put us? Is this where he talks about shadows in the cave or am I confusing two different things?

Answer by Caterina Pangallo

Plato’s Theory of Forms works like this:

All things in the world can be grouped. There are cats and trees and men and women. Now each of these groups has particulars (individuals) in it, and they all differ from each other in some way. E.g some humans are big, others are small, others fat and others thin. Some are boys, some girls, some are young, and some are old.

When we put such items into a group we have choices. We can put all humans into one basket. Or we can put all fat boys into one basket and all skinny girls into another.

It all depends on what kind of qualities we recognise the best.

We make up these group because it helps us to recognise the particulars in a group.

But of course this is an idea. When you look into the world, you see beautiful things, but you cannot see Beauty, because Beauty is an idea.

So this idea is what Plato calls a ‘form’.

The form is the idea of a perfect original on which all particulars are based.

There is no actual world anywhere where all these forms exist. It’s a purely hypothetical existence. I know this is difficult. But if you have an idea, you might say ‘it’s in my mind’. Well, where exactly is your mind? And if you go for a walk, does your ideas walk with you?

The same applies to Plato’s forms. They don’t ‘exist’ in reality. They are something altogether ideal.

However, they can acquire actuality in the world in an imperfect way. That’s why every particular shares features with others in its group.

The Cave allegory proves the point.

It says that we are all trapped, as if in a cave, by our senses. What we pick up from the world with our senses are all imperfect particulars. Therefore we never see perfect beauty, or perfect anything.

But to give you an example of what he means, let us look at a triangle. You can draw one with pencil on paper. It will be very wobbly (especially if you see it under a magnifying glass). But in your imagination you can visualise a perfect triangle. This is the idea of a triangle.

Now triangles are simple. Most ideas are very complex things that we cannot imagine visually. The message of the cave is this: that if you could really see e.g. the perfect form of truth, you would be dazzled and blinded. That’s because are not used to it. We know very little about truth.

Thomas Aquinas on the existence of God

Fred asked:

In the ‘Summa Contra Gentiles’ by Thomas Aquinas, Aquinas argues to reasonably proof the existence of God. His arguments are based on a series of inferences that existed when he was alive. However, I do not think, as a philosophy student, I should repeat Aquinas’ views to answer exam questions.

My question now is: If the above statement is right than what are techniques I can use to answer philosophical questions?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

What you should do is to focus on the word ‘proof’ and ask yourself, what does it mean?

The exercise of Aquinas is called a ‘proof’, but in reality it is no such thing.

It is simply an engagement with the problem of infinite regress and supposes it is reasonable (as Aristotle suggests, on whom Aquinas leans) that the infinite chain of causes must stop somewhere. If one is so disposed, one can call this ‘God’, and Aquinas does so, but Aristotle doesn’t.

In fact Aristotle came to a recognition that a single cause is unachievable, since the sum of all processes that regress to infinity cannot be shown to converge. There could be a plurality of prime movers. But Aquinas evades this problem by bringing angels into the argument, which is hardly a reasonable supposition and would be rejected by people who don’t believe in angels.

It is not even as good as the reasonable supposition that occurs quite frequently in Court, that if a lot of circumstantial evidence points to a person as a murderer, then we are likely to have a case of ‘proof beyond reasonable doubt’. We know that errors have been made in such cases; but this proves nothing more than that humans may still err when the most rigorously compiled evidence is to hand.

Aquinas ‘proof’ is therefore nothing better, as you say, than a series of inferences. To amount to a proof, he should be able to marshal evidence and count on universally acceptable logical premises.

When you inspect his procedure in that light, you will find mere conjectures and hypotheses standing behind it. They in turn are not based on factual evidence, but on further conjectures, hypotheses, hearsay, articles of belief and so on. This is considerably less than a Court would encourage any jury to regard as ‘proof beyond reasonable doubt’. Unfortunately for Aquinas, the kind of logic that was acceptable in his era is no longer adequate.

It is well-known, but worth repeating in such cases, that if your major premise is that the moon is made of green cheese, then the finest inference on any astronomical issue can only result in a nonsense conclusion.

We come to the point, then, that a ‘reasonable proof’ of God’s existence is not possible. We have no data which could serve as premises that would satisfy factual, let alone scientific, criteria.

Accordingly the best you can ask for, is that a ‘reasonable hypothesis’ can be framed and achieve consent in some circles. But to stick with the truth, hypothesis is still aiming too high, because even an hypothesis must be made on the basis of fairly strong factual evidence.

So that leaves you with ‘conjecture’; and indeed what Anselm, Aquinas, Descartes and other thinkers broadcast as an ‘ontological proof’ is nothing more than a conjecture, based on certain logical question-and-answer games that are suggestive, but a million miles away from ‘proofs’.

You should be aware, finally, that both Leibniz and Kant took the premises of such ‘ontological proofs’ and demonstrated by logical inferences the opposite result. Since this is self-contradictory, it means, of course, that there is something wrong with the premises.

You should recall finally that Kant made the very convincing claim that anything related to God cannot be a topic on which we can have knowledge. He expressly wrote in his Critique of Pure Reason that one of his purposes was to settle the question of what we can know, so as to ‘make room for faith’.

So our conclusion here must be that the word ‘proof’ is too often misunderstood and misused, even by philosophers. ‘Evidence’ is not proof, although it may end in a proof. Hypotheses, conjectures, beliefs and all sort of presuppositions are frequently taken as ‘evidence’, which all too often they are not. But clearly they are already a step down from the possibility of use as premises in proofs.

Accordingly you cannot have a ‘reasonable proof’. You either have a proof or you have none.


Ashley asked:

In the original version of his ‘Third Way’ Aquinas makes an obviously invalid inference. Say as clearly as you can what that inference is, and explain why it is invalid.

Answer by Martin Jenkins

Here is the alleged ‘proof’:

1. Things observed are subject to the possibilities of existence and non-existence.

2. What exists is generated from non-existence by something existing.

3. What generates must itself not exist at some time.

4. If not existing is possible for things, then at sometime, there was nothing really existing.

5. If there was nothing really existing, there would be nothing now. This is false as there is something.

6. Therefore, there must be something which necessarily exists and is not subject to the possibility of non-existence. This thing is God.

The inference made is from the possibility/ impossibility of particular existing things to that of an absolute state of non-existence. It doesn’t follow as it is possible that there is always some thing existing even if it is also possible for it to not exist. This chain of contingent existence can reach infinitly back in time removing the need for a necessary being and first cause.

If you replace all the parts of a car is it still the same car?

Jon asked

You replace a defective part in your car. The next day you do the same thing with another part and then do so each day until you have replaced every part with a new one. Is what you have at the end of this process the same car with new parts or is it a new car? And if it is different when did it become so?

Answer by Craig Skinner

You raise a classical question as to how much compositional change (if any) an entity can undergo and still remain (numerically) the same entity. First raised by Plutarch as the repeatedly-repaired Ship of Theseus.

We could say that any change whatever destroys a thing’s identity (so called Mereological Constancy). Identity requires the selfsame atoms, none added, none taken away. So the new car exiting the showroom is already not the same car that sat there a moment ago — some of the tyre atoms have transferred to the floor, some new carbon atoms from the fuel are now part of the cylinder linings etc. As for people, you couldn’t shake hands with the same person twice. On this view, what we normally think of as an entity such as a car or a person, is really a vast series of fleeting different entities.

But we generally allow that things can change their parts without loss of identity eg I now wish to say I am the same man (now receiving a pension) as the young fellow who contributed to that pension from his wages years ago, and he saved because he thought the old boy who would benefit one day would be him, even though I am composed of completely different atoms from the me of 40 years ago. And similarly with artefacts such as cars or houses.

If we allow any part replacement at all, we are logically compelled to allow complete replacement of parts. This is because of the transitivity of identity (if A is identical with B, and B is identical with C, then A is identical with C) so that if its the same car after the oil filter is changed, it’s the same car after a tyre is later changed etc etc right up to complete replacement of parts. So, in short, the car at the end of the process you describe is the same car, as I am the same man at the end of my life.

However Thomas Hobbes (using the ship of Theseus example) pointed out a problem that arises if the old parts, instead of being binned, are kept, and then, when all the parts which constituted the original car are available, they are reconstructed into a car. Now we have 2 cars, let’s call them “Renovated” (Reno) which I have been driving all along, and “Reconstructed” (Reco) which has been built from the heap of spare parts accumulated over the years. Which car is to be identified with the original car?

There is something to be said for each option.
In favour of Reno: we routinely allow parts replacement; if the old parts had been discarded, we would have accepted Reno as a matter of course; and it’s the car I’ve been driving, taxing and fuelling all along.
In favour of Reco: if the original car had been disassembled/reassembled we would have accepted it as the same car as a matter of course; and, after all, Reco has all and only the parts of the original.

Possible solutions:

1. Both cars are the original. But this entails either one thing being in two places at once (not plausible) or that the original car was really two things which gradually separated (problematic – on seeing a single object, are we seeing one or two, or three or more, different things?)

2. Reno is the same car. Reco comes into existence only when assembled from old parts. Until then, these parts don’t belong to any car. If no renovation had occurred, these parts would have still belonged to the original car and we would have had one car throughout, initially assembled, later part-disassembled, later fully disassembled, finally reassembled. But a part cant belong to 2 cars at once. If my car’s oil filter is removed, it is still part of my (slightly disassembled) car, but once a replacement filter is fitted, the old one is no longer part of my car (or any other) although it might be reconditioned and become part of another car in the future – even one made of all and only the former parts of my car.

I prefer 2. to 1.

Answer by Shaun Williamson

It really doesn’t matter. Not every question has a definite or sensible answer.

Language was invented by human beings so that they could talk to each other about the things that interest them. It is as precise or as imprecise as we want it to be.