An invisible God?

Francis Rose asked:

I am taking an introductory metaphysics course in which our first unit is entitled “Who is God?”. One point in my textbook that stood out to me was the author’s statement that “indisputably” if God truly exists in both understanding and reality, then God “must be invisible”. Given how much is questioned in the discipline of metaphysics, why must we blindly accept God as being invisible? What formal proof or logic do we have that indicates that God cannot be a visible entity in reality? Perhaps if God exists, God is visible, and part of our struggle as humans is to be open to seeing God. As an aside, I am not religiously persuaded either for or against the existence of God. I am simply curious about how to approach this question from a philosophical standpoint.

Answer by Gideon Smith-Jones

It’s 23:30 here in the UK but I don’t want to let International Blasphemy Day pass without something being said against God.

Of course God is invisible. What you mean by ‘seeing’ God is something like religious revelation which isn’t literal seeing. Your author means literal seeing. If you could literally see God — not just see God in the sense of seeing some physical event that God has caused but see God as God then God would have to be an entity in the physical world.

If God is an entity in the physical world then a whole load of things that are believed about God can’t be true — being infinite, for example, or omniscient (a physical entity’s knowledge of other physical entities depends on cause and effect, which involves forming hypotheses that are increasingly difficult to verify with certainty).

But isn’t Christ God according to Christian doctrine? Only if you mean something weirdly peculiar by ‘is’, which no theologian to date has successfully explained. ‘I believe because I don’t understand’ (I believe because it’s nonsense) just about sums it up.

If I said I believed in invisible aliens who were with me all the time, observing me, giving an undetectable ‘push’ every now and then to help things along, I would be considered a candidate for a lunatic asylum. Yet this is exactly what millions, or billions, believe about the entity they call ‘God’. So strong is this belief that in some countries you can be put to death for expressing opposition to it.

‘Lots of things we justifiably believe in are invisible,’ a believer may say. The number five. Justice. Gravity or magnetism (you can only see their effects). Well if you’re saying that God is a concept or an abstract object then forget about any notion of God having any physical effect on the world (least of all being able to ‘create’ it). If you are saying that God is like a physical force, that would be fine if you have a testable theory to back it up — including proof of God’s alleged properties. Oh, but I forgot, bang goes infinitude, etc.

The God hypothesis is a crackpot theory which no reasonable human being ought to believe in. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what millions and billions continue to do. Unreason still rules — and will continue to rule until we blasphemers do something effective about it.


Why did Marxism fail?

Plum Asked:

Did Marx think that the Polynesians living on islands in the Pacific were part of history?

Why was Marx convinced that capitalism would fail? Why did Marxism fail instead?

Answer by Paul Fagan

When answering questions concerning Karl Marx it should be borne in mind that although many persons and publications may purport to expound his viewpoints, Marx’s actual thought on many situations may remain unknown. It may therefore be necessary to carefully extrapolate some of Marx’s definite opinions. And this is how I would attempt to answer your questions.

Polynesians would almost certainly be part of any historical process but their society, in Marx’s time, would not be considered by him to be at the same stage of development as the industrialised societies; which had reached a stage of ghastly capitalism that should be replaced.

With regard to Karl Marx’s conviction that capitalism would fail, Marx witnessed the means of production being privately owned but operated by employees. This inherent clash of interests in the arrangement would cause the status quo to be overthrown: a class of persons owning the means of production and protecting their interests would be pitted against an increasingly organised working class also protecting their interests; and this would inevitably result in workers revolting and taking power. After this, the aim of the workers would be to collectivise and control production; and such cooperation would eventually lead to a state of shared material abundance where work became desirable and not a necessity to survive. In the end, society would distribute resources by the maxim ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!’

Two underlying causes of dissatisfaction may be expected to fuel the above process, namely exploitation and alienation. Exploitation may be identified when workers have been paid for less than the value of their work; which may be found to be irksome depending upon how much value they fail to gain. And alienation is manifested when, in order to earn a living, persons work in roles, or produce goods, that are of little use or interest to them. (The major events in Marx’s life that helped to forge his viewpoints are detailed, in a very readable manner, in Francis Wheen’s biography of Marx).

Now it should be noted that during the industrial revolution other commentators had their misgivings over society’s progression: Marx was not alone. For instance, Robert Owen felt that society must change course in order to maintain stability and suggested a communitarian way of avoiding capitalism’s pitfalls; whereby persons would live in communities owning the means of production to avoid exploitation and alienation.

With regards to the failure of Marxism, capitalism has proved to be malleable and tenacious; (Alan Ryan gave a view of Marx’s oversights in Property and Political Theory). For instance, persons are prepared to suffer alienation provided that it gives the material comforts of the modern world. Also, he noted that work is not purely an exploitative process: the amount of opportunities to socialise, offered by the workplace are numerous.

However, it should be noted that there are many who feel that Marxism has not failed. For instance, many political theorists feel that Marx has successfully provided the tools whereby modern capitalism may be criticised and its purported success gauged: tools such as historical materialism and class-based analyses. Furthermore, for many, Marxism has not yet been tried: not in the form that Marx prescribed. Certainly, the recent ‘credit crunch’ and subsequent recession has caused many to rethink their political viewpoints and seek other ideologies. Hence, some may await the time when the conditions are right, for Marxism to enjoy a resurgence in popularity.


Fear of death

Mason asked:

Why isn’t death something one suffers from?

Helena asked:

Is it for the best that people eventually die?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

I’m going to answer Mason’s and Helena’s questions together because they both concern the problem of our fear of death. (See my article Is it rational to fear death? and my YouTube video What is death?)

The short and boring answer to Mason’s question comes from from the Greek philosopher Epicurus: ‘Death is nothing to us … It does not concern either the living or the dead, since for the former it is not, and the latter are no more.’ To ‘suffer’ from something (e.g. a bee sting, an amputation) you need to be alive. Death as such, as opposed to the process — possibly long and agonizing — of dying isn’t something you suffer because at the very point where death begins, ‘you’ are no more.

So far as the danger that Malthus predicted of the world population increasing at a geometric rate is concerned, it is very definitely a good thing that people eventually die — good for everyone else on the planet! But how can it be ‘good’ for you? Wouldn’t you prefer to live forever if you had the choice? That’s Helena’s question.

Thomas Nagel has written a very good essay on this in his book Mortal Questions, 1979: ‘Death’ (posted at

One question that Nagel considers that has gripped me is the seeming paradox of the unappealingness of the thought that I might just go on for ever and ever, and the desire, at any given time, to go on living. Let’s say I’m convinced by the argument that life would get extremely boring and repetitive after, say, a thousand years. I would not want to live as long as that. And yet, as each new day begins, I sincerely hope that I do not die today.

In practice, as the centuries wear on, and you become increasingly aware of your miserable finitude and the limits of what you are able to achieve given your limited powers, the depression would increase to the point where you felt impelled to kill yourself. The maths of this situation (which is parallel to a thunder clap, or tearing a piece of paper) has been well researched: it’s called catastrophe theory. The point is that when you do finally turn the gun on yourself, you don’t do so for a ‘reason’ (which has existed possibly for hundreds of years). You just finally snap.

But what about this claim — possibly contentious — that even granted immortality, I am a limited being with limited possibilities? Surely (this is a point that has been made to me) if we are going into the realms of magic, and immortality is a magical notion (you even survive the death of the universe and the birth of a new universe!) then why couldn’t you magically acquire greater and greater intellectual powers, so that you were fully able to make use of your indefinitely extended life span?

Imagine what you like. The question is, are you imagining YOU? Are you still there, or has something over time taken your place (and perhaps fondly preserves your memories, as one keeps faded photographs in a family album). The god-lie entity that exists now, after hundreds of thousands of years, isn’t you. ‘It’ merely remembers another being’s ‘memories’, the being that you were.


Marrying a horse or another man

Ngole asked:

How can human beings marries animals or marry fellow man?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

An intriguing question. First, we have to ask, What is marriage for?

Two individuals take a solemn vow to one another to be partners throughout their lives — ‘until death do us part’.

Marriage is typically consummated by sexual relations, but it need not be. According to, ‘You can annul a marriage if… it wasn’t consummated — you haven’t had sex with the person you married since the wedding (doesn’t apply for same sex couples).’

The parenthetical qualification seems to introduce two concepts of ‘marriage’, which may be acceptable in law in terms of the legal consequences of marriage for inheritance or tax purposes, but seems wrong in principle. The idea that consummation is essential to ‘real’ marriage (i.e. between a man and a woman) is archaic and has no place in a modern legal system.

The exception also gives the lie to the claim that gay couples in the UK can now call themselves ‘married’. They can use the word. The legal benefits are sorted out. Yet the law still states, archaically, that there are two kinds of ‘marriage’, not one, those that can and those that can’t be annulled on the grounds of non-consummation.

Marriage may be for the sake of having children, or at least conducted with the prospect of children, but again this is not necessary, for various reasons which we need not go into. In the UK, you can’t annul a marriage on grounds of infertility, whether or not this was known in advance.

So why is it necessary that one marries another human being? Let’s say that I am a hunter, and I am in love with my seven year old mare whom I have owned since she was a yearling. We’ve been together through thick and thin. I want to get married and I think she would be happy with the idea — if only she could talk and understood my marriage proposal.

But there’s the rub. Marriage is a vow undertaken by two individuals to one another. You can’t make a vow if you lack the mental capacity to grasp what that means. My mare will never comprehend my feelings for her, even though I know in some way she appreciates the loving way in which I groom and feed her.

Of course this is ridiculous. But I sense, from the tone of your question, that you think that a man marrying another man is in the same category as a man marrying a horse.

If that is the case, poor you.


Man is semi-autonomous

Kevin asked:

We’re going to have a oral defense in our philosophy class. However, the statement assigned for us to discuss or defend is, “Man is semi-autonomous.” How to defend this statement? Please help

Answer by Paul Fagan

Now political philosophy would have something to say on this matter. Particularly those philosophers who criticise liberalism and are often grouped under the umbrella term ‘communitarians’. Firstly, they may note that individuals gain their language, values and customs from a greater society around them: they don’t invent a society all by themselves! Secondly, they may say that individuals need a surrounding society in which to ground their own self-perception: it is therefore logically impossible to view yourself as fully autonomous. Thirdly, they may argue that it is society giving persons ’ends’ or goals to realise. (A three-pronged criticism of this type, aimed at the liberal notions of individuality, has been more thoroughly dealt with by Will Kymlicka in his book Contemporary Political Philosophy; particularly the chapter entitled ‘Communitarianism’).

In an attempt to deny that society restrains an individual’s life, the advocate of liberalism may remark that she has the rights to free political association; can listen to whatever music she likes and own property. Don’t these constitute autonomy? Possibly, but this all depends upon how we value and measure the concept of ‘autonomy’.

To demonstrate the communitarians’ argument and make it more tangible, a person may have the freedoms to buy a good such as a bicycle for instance. But that same person would need a surrounding society to teach her the skills to ride it; furthermore, that same person would need a society to build and supply a bicycle in the first place! Additionally, the society would give the person self-perception as a cyclist. But all along, society will have provided the notion that owning a bicycle is advantageous.

Hence, whenever we think or act we are constantly guided by a formative society. There may be some philosophers who would argue that as it is impossible to completely detach yourself from society, then a state of ‘semi-autonomy’ is all that the individual, who wishes to jettison the trappings of society, may hope to achieve.

Socrates and the ‘physikoi’

Tom asked:

In claiming that Socrates was not concerned with the metaphysical questions about the nature of the universe (which led to many of these types of philosophers being called heretics), mainly because he simply did not know the answers to those questions and wasn’t good at discovering them, he did not want to be confused with… what?

Answer by Gideon Smith-Jones

Well, I hate to say it, but this is another pretty dumb instructor’s essay question. You really don’t need to read my answer, just read Plato’s dialogue Phaedo. (Try hard to suppress your tears when you reach the end. Plato really knew how to lard it on.)

Socrates didn’t want to be confused with the ‘physikoi’, the thinkers such as Anaxagoras who speculated about the nature of the physical universe. These were not ‘metaphysical’ questions (where did your instructor get that idea?).

If you are looking for ‘metaphysical’ inquiry, then the Presocratic philosophers Parmenides and Heraclitus would the most relevant — but their theories were the precursors to Plato’s own theory of Forms, which he developed from Socrates’ teaching about the soul and the virtues.

Socrates’ concern is with ‘Man’. (Women, as distinct from men, weren’t really a topic.) However, his concern with human beings is not ‘humanistic’ in the modern sense. The soul of man is ‘akin to the Forms’ he says in the Phaedo, that is how philosophers are able to obtain knowledge of the Forms through the inquiry which Plato called ‘dialectic’ (again, modelled on the example of Socrates’ method of philosophical interrogation — the  ‘elenchus’).

This is metaphysics, in its most scary, full-blooded form!

In Aristophanes’ Comedy Clouds, the figure of Socrates is lampooned as a typical example of the ‘physical philosopher’, which shows how little the Athenians understood the revolution that was taking place. After the death of Socrates, Plato set out to set the record straight. He succeeded brilliantly, largely because of his immense literary gifts. (According to the British philosopher Gilbert Ryle in his book Plato’s Progress 1966, Plato’s dialogues were performed to live audiences.)

In the process, the great Greek Sophists, such as Gorgias and Protagoras — keen admirers of the physikoi — were abused and stigmatized, and forever banned from the Academy.

I’m sorry to say, the wellsprings of philosophy in the Western tradition are thoroughly fascist. (Karl Popper said it first, in The Open Society and its Enemies 1945.) Today, we have academic philosophy — fascism with a liberal face.


Definition of ‘definition’

Colin asked:

What is the definition of ‘definition’?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Ah, what a great question! I don’t recall anyone asking this (going back to when Ask a Philosopher was launched in 1999). However, earlier this year in an answer to a question on the difference between ‘real’ and ‘nominal’ definitions, Hubertus Fremerey states:

“My definition of ‘definition’ would be: A method of bringing some order into the boundless chaos of experiences — sensual and intellectual.”

This is a nice idea, but to my ear falls short of the requirements of a definition. Fremerey goes on to say:

“The whole concept of ‘real definition’ is a misnomer, and even ‘nominal definition’ is. What you have as primary givens are experiences, and then you first attach labels to them and if needed you re-define the (sensual or rational) objects in the context of a theory.”

This is Fremerey’s ‘take’ on the question. A take isn’t a definition, although the way you take something can be relevant to formulating a definition. A case could be made that when analytic philosophers ‘define’ concepts (the concept of a person, or causation, or event, or etc.) what they are really doing is offering takes or theories. What they are looking for is an insightful view of the concept in question and how it fits in to our conceptual scheme.

A notorious case would be the fruitless attempt to define ‘knowledge’, with ever more elaborate sets of conditions, designed to cope with every possible counterexample. A theory of knowledge is what one is after, but a theory doesn’t necessarily require that you give a set of conditions that uniquely identify the concept in question.

So let’s narrow the question and concentrate on definitions rather than theories. A definition of a term should give you sufficient information to be able to use that term successfully and correctly, provided only that you understand the terms used in the definition. The Oxford English Dictionary (‘on Historical Principles’) is a model of this approach, which offers examples of the use of the word in question, especially early or first uses, as well as a sketch of its etymology.

A popular question in English-speaking philosophy in the 50s or 60s would have been, ‘What is the difference between a philosophical analysis and a dictionary definition?’ Now that I know how, e.g., the English word ‘person’ is used in normal conversation, its derivation from the Latin ‘persona’, what more do I need to grasp the concept of a person?

Let’s stick with this example. Suppose that the predicted breakthroughs in AI come to pass, and the first intelligent creatures with artificial brains roll of the production line. Are they persons? Whom should you ask, a philosopher or a lexicographer?

Imagine a future dystopian society where AI creatures are exploited and abused because they are not regarded as ‘persons’ by the general public despite the objections of philosophers. Or, alternatively, a society which happily embraces these mechanical beings into the ‘human race’ despite the objections of philosophers. A lexicographer is interested in how a thing is regarded, without questioning too hard the basis for the belief in question. The philosopher is the one who asks, ‘But is it really?’

As stated above, the philosopher may only be able to offer a take, not a definition. But a take can be sufficient to defeat a false definition.

What is a definition of ‘definition’? There is more than one kind of definition. I have given two, for the sake of contrast, but there are probably more (consider, e.g. the use of definition in mathematics). If there are two kinds of definition, then there are two (or possibly four!) definitions of ‘definition’, and if there are three, then etc. The point, however, is to decide what kind of definition we (as philosophers) are primarily interested in.