The age of the Earth and the reality of time

Robert asked:

What is the age of the Earth if time does not exist?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

The age of the Earth, according to my Google search, is 4.543 billion years. If time does not exist the age of the Earth is 4.543 billion years. Just out of interest, I asked Google about the distance of the Earth from the Sun and got the answer 151.54 million km. If space does not exist then the distance of the Earth from the Sun is 151.54 million km. I remember learning at school that it was 93 million miles but that is just an approximation.

How can this be? You ask. A philosopher who says that time isn’t real is saying, in effect, that time is something else from what we thought it to be. Ditto space. That is a big claim, and overwhelming to take in if you are new to philosophy. Nothing is what it seems but is in fact something else! Whew!

The view that time is unreal is an important notion in the history of philosophy, going back to the Presocratic philosopher Parmenides, who was uncompromising in his opposition the ‘opinions of ordinary mortals’. In the 20th century, the most notable proponent of the unreality of time was John McTaggart, in The Nature of Existence (1921). McTaggart was an idealist. Generally, metaphysical idealists agree that space is unreal.

These claims – about the unreality of time, or of space – make sense to me, absolutely. I’m not going to say whether or not I agree, as I still haven’t at the time of writing made up my mind. In relativistic physics, of course there is no ‘space’ or ‘time’ as we naively conceive these, only space-time. But let’s stick with metaphysics.

There was a time, specifically Oxford, UK in the 1950s, when philosophers scoffed at these ideas, and poured scorn on the great achievements of their predecessors. J.L. Austin, in Sense and Sensibilia (1962), remarked, ‘There’s the bit where you say it and the bit where you take it back.’ He was talking about theories of perception but the jibe applies quite generally to any would-be metaphysician who ‘wants to have it both ways’, for example about time or about space.

Austin was a clever man, but the antics of the ‘ordinary language’ philosophers of his generation now look to us just silly. They lived in an ideological haze of their own creation, reinforced one another’s Luddite determination to wreck the achievements of the philosophical system builders of previous generations, and replace their insights with what now reads like superficial common-room banter. It must have been mystifying to be an undergraduate philosophy student during those bleak times.

The renowned sociologist Ernest Gellner wrote a book, Words and Things (1959) which rips the arguments of ordinary language philosophers to shreds. Even in the 1970s when I was an undergraduate at London University, Gellner was looked at askance, as an outsider who had no right to criticize the ‘experts’. Gellner died in 1995. My sister Elli Sarah had him as her tutor when she was at the London School of Economics in the late 70s, and says he was extremely intelligent, rigorous, fair-minded and kind.

The question of the ultimate nature of time, or space, or space-time is very, very deep. It is a real question that requires long and committed inquiry, not a pseudo-question that can be brushed aside with a sneering comment from the likes of Austin.

Kant’s critique of Descartes’ theory of knowledge

Adan asked:

What would Kant think about Descartes’ theory of knowledge?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

We don’t need to speculate about what Kant would think about Descartes’ theory of knowledge because Kant spells out his disagreement with Descartes in the Critique of Pure Reason.

Descartes believed that it was possible to intuit certain metaphysical truths because we have ‘clear and distinct’ ideas of them. But this is only on the condition, as he acknowledges, that God exists – which he thinks he can prove. If all my experience were produced by an evil demon then no ideas are clear or distinct even if we think they are. If God exists, then provided we use our powers of judgement responsibly, we can rely on our capacity to discover truths about the external world.

Descartes believes that he has a ‘clear and distinct’ idea of his soul qua ‘immaterial substance’. Belief in the existence of body as ‘material substance’ is justified because he experiences bodies outside him, in addition to his own material body, and God is no deceiver.

Kant has responses to all these points. In the ‘Refutation of Idealism’ in the Second Edition of the Critique of Pure Reason, he argues that experience is only possible on the condition that it takes a certain form, viz. spatio-temporal. We would be unable to identify ourselves as a subject if all we experienced was a series of experiences arranged in time.

A lot has been written about this remarkable argument, as an example of what has come to be known as a ‘transcendental argument’. Very good accounts can be found in P.F. Strawson The Bounds of Sense (1966) and C. Peacocke Holistic Explanation (1979).

In the ‘Paralogisms of Transcendental Psychology’ in the second part of the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant argues that knowledge of my identity through time as an immaterial substance is illusory. There would be no way to tell the difference between a continuing ‘soul’ and a series of momentary ‘souls’ communicating their states to one another like a line of colliding pool balls. In his terms, we mistake the ‘a priori unity of apperception’ for the perception of unity. Self-identity is a necessary theoretical parameter in deciphering experience, not something we actually experience.

For Kant, all we have is experience taking a spatio-temporal form, from which we form judgements about objects in space and our own position as an observer relative to those objects.

But now comes the crunch: there is no way to prove the existence of God, as Kant claims in his critique of the Cosmological, Teleological and Ontological arguments. All we can say (some commentators would say this is already saying too much) is that in addition to the world of phenomena, of which we can have knowledge in the ways described, there is a noumenal world, beyond space and time, strictly inconceivable to the human mind. If God exists, then that would be a fact about the noumenal world. Descartes’ claim that reality consists of immaterial and material substance – souls and bodies – goes beyond anything that human beings could ever know.

Too much philosophy?

Saleh asked:

How to stop thinking philosophically about everything? I feel that instead of enjoying life and the things around me I put so much energy and time analyzing them and looking for explanations like thinking in terms of Aristotle’s causes or in terms of parts-whole relations and so many ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions. So how to lose interest in that or at least how to learn not to put so much energy and time on it?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Philosophy is good and you can never have too much of a good thing. It is fine, totally OK, to spend all your time on studying philosophy. Obviously, I’m talking about the time you have available. You need to allocate time for sleeping, eating, brushing your teeth etc. But there’s no need to waste time on those things. Do the necessary and then get back to your studies!

What about a balanced life? you say. Rubbish. No-one has yet formulated the rule for a ‘balanced life’, for any human being. We are all different. And that is the point. Do what you’ve got to do, never mind the others. You don’t have to justify yourself to anyone. To be motivated — to do anything at all — is great. Not everyone has that gift, I’m talking about the gift of motivation. There are those who drift through life, who never get to answer the question, ‘Why I am here,’ not even a provisional answer. They don’t know why they are here, the world doesn’t need them and nor do other people. To be in that state is far, far worse than material poverty.

To be motivated to study philosophy and the great philosophers — now, that’s something special. It’s a gift. You don’t look a gift horse in the mouth. Give yourself up to it, study as much and as hard as you can. You will not be here for ever, and even a long life is not enough to fully get to grips with this amazing subject.

Which is not to say that you shouldn’t allow yourself to be interested in other things. I once wrote, ‘Philosophers should know lots of things besides philosophy.’ I knew a philosopher once, talented, sharp logical mind, who didn’t know what stars are. I’d made some remark about ‘other suns’, and this person didn’t grasp what I was talking about. ‘What other suns?’ What do you think stars are? ‘I’ve never asked myself that question.’ — It was Immanuel Kant who wrote that the two things that most filled him with wonder were the starry heavens above and the moral law within. (As it happens, Kant made original contributions to cosmology.) My friend knew all about the moral law but the starry heavens were a mystery. Or not even that because ‘the question didn’t occur’.

Just for the record, I am fascinated by science, the arts, geography, history, and every other subject you could name. Without going deeply into all of them, or indeed any of them. I know enough. I would do well on a general knowledge quiz. Or, at least, passably well. And I have my enthusiastic interests, that admittedly come and go — like photography, chess, guitar. I am happy to throw myself into any one of these for a while. But there is one interest, just one, that has me for life, no matter what I do or where life takes me. You already know what that is.

— You’re doing well, Saleh. Keep it up!

Nietzsche on truths and untruths

Shermika asked:

I don’t know if I’ve popped up in the right place… but I’m desperate. There is a Nietzsche quote, I read it years ago. It is about how humanity is meaningful only to itself. In it he gives a short summary of the human race evolving into existence and then ending, all to the unseeing eyes of an indifferent universe. I remember it as extremely beautiful and hopeful, even if it’s a tad nihilistic. I may be mis-attributing it to Nietzsche. It would be deeply appreciated if you could help me.

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

The quote is hard to find, because it is not indexed among Nietzsche’s “official” works, but published posthumously by his sister. Shortly after WWII, when a new complete edition appeared, the editor (Karl Schlechter) ripped all of Elisabeth Forster’s forgeries out, including those which appeared in the faked Will to Power, bundling them all together in chronological order at the end of Vol. III under “Miscellaneous Writings”. At least this way we know when it was written — in 1873, in the vicinity of his Birth of Tragedy; and this explains why it is not connected to the Nazi-sponsored edition.

Anyway, the text reads:

“In some remote corner of the universe, poured out and glittering in innumerable solar systems, there once was a star on which clever animals invented knowledge. That was the haughtiest and most mendacious minute of “world history” — yet only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths the star grew cold, and the clever animals had to die.”

Contained in Taylor Carman’s collection of miscellanies, On Truth and Untruth.

Answer by Hubertus Fremerey

Maybe it is this one:

This text is finished in June 1873, thus it is an early work.

The problem with searching in translation is:  No two translations are the same, while the original always is.  Thus I have “truth and falsity” or “truth and lie” or “falsity and truth” and “extra-moral sense” or “ultra-moral sense” — that alone makes six different translations of the same German text.

Pitfalls of Young Earth creationism

Mike asked:

I am currently having a discussion with a Young Earth Creationist who posits that the whole question of science is a philosophical one and that the view on evidence is purely philosophical. I don’t know how to respond to (what I think) is an absurd argument. Do you have any tips?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

Okay: Let’s leave science and philosophy to one side — we don’t need them anyway for a surefire case against creationist notions. As it happens, one of the fundamental features of humanness is our unquenchable thirst for stories; therefore humans are inveterate story tellers, and this happens in so many forms and guises that we can hardly keep a tally of them all. We look over humanity’s output from Gilgamesh to the latest novel, and a clear trend emerges. Whatever bothers us, whatever gives us pleasure — adventures, uncommon experiences, mysteries, challenges, riddles, heroism, discovery, love, situations of conflict and high emotion — all are grist to the mill.

But in our reactions to literature, whether dramas, novels, comedies, movies etc., we “suspend disbelief” while it lasts in order to enjoy the story, fully aware that stories are not the “real thing”, but either a reflection or an analogue of reality. This pertains even to such fanciful impositions as Ariosto’s sorcerors and flying horses or Shakespeare’s ghosts and witches. Suspended disbelief allows us to go along with the story if otherwise it captures our imagination. And so we find plenty of it in myths, legends, fairy tales and science fiction stories as well.

In other words: story telling is an almost universal currency for the communication of human predilections, serving to lighten up the boring routines of daily life for a few hours, after which we return to them refreshed and, sometimes, with our consciousness of the human condition deepened by the experience, more ready for authentic rather than merely humdrum pursuits. The devices of story telling have that potential, which is precisely the reason why we cultivate them.

Coming now to religions, it is hardly surprising that they also begin with stories. But the message they project tends to carry more radical implications — as if Ariosto or Shakespeare, Little Red Riding Hood and Blade Runner were suddenly revealed as purveying the literal truth, rather than merely stimulating the imagination. Logically this implies a demand to suspend the suspended disbelief and accept the existence of a supernatural realm beyond the human sphere, whose denizens are spiritual beings with superhuman powers which nonetheless have purely physical effects in the world. Objectively regarded, however, these story tellers are still humans, like the rest of us — prone to errors, false information, hallucinations etc. Therefore it is a pretty tall order to demand from us an implicit belief in the credibility of their stories. This is not sticking to the rules of the game. So we are reduced to asking, who are the authors of these tales and who can vouch for their “truths”?

Which brings us to another criterion: “Omniscient author”. When you read (say) D.H. Lawrence, the author knows everything about the lives of his protagonists, including their thoughts and feelings. To say the obvious: This is not possible in reality, but in fiction it is the most common narrative device. Now, who authored the Old and New Testaments? Obviously its writers, most of whom are remarkably anonymous. And these writers claim, just as Lawrence did, insider access to the souls of their subjects and occasional privileged audition of God’s own words. However, neither the Bible nor the Gospels were authored by God, nor did any of the authors claim divine inspiration for their text. This was done subsequently, by preachers who found plenty of gullible subjects willing to believe them. But the logic of this situation is plainly, that all these stories are just stories. None of them wore a label in their inception, that can be traced directly to the divinity of which they wrote. The writers themselves are the only authorities vouching for their truth (disregarding later proselytisers) and yet the stories of the Gospels do not fit together at any point to make one story.

But we might well ask: Who cares about these discrepancies? For which the answer is plain: those with a vested interest in representing them as sacred scriptures. But if they are the highest authority to vouch for the truth content of these tales, then we are in trouble. Then we are legitimately entitled to question the justification for their label “The Word of God.”

The moral is: With any story, whatever its intent or purpose, our discretionary suspension of disbelief should not be enacted until the truth content of the story is established “beyond reasonable doubt”. This applies to history as well, and even the news bulletins on TV. How many of them are subsequently convicted of being mere allegations, prejudicial accounts or plain fibs!

Summing up: There is no higher authority than human judges on the truth content of any story whatever. No such truth can be shown to exist outside of the human domain; and this is interesting from another angle too. Namely, that the truths associated with divinities do not belong into our world because they have no opposite (i.e. falsehood). But without this foil to truth, how can we know what truth is?

Music and meaning (contd.)

Ghadi asked:

Music — pure music — is abstract, in this case is it an abstract stimulation of another abstract?

Although music has meaning, it seems harder to catch than the meaning of a word, the language in general, so what is the difference between music and language? both transfer something, but the level of clarity differs! That the transference is from an abstract to an abstract and here the issue relies, in determining the meaning, how does it happen? If this considered as an issue in the first place…

All of a sudden, the idea came to my mind and now I really want to know about it.

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

You wouldn’t want to believe it, but so many wise men and women across 2500 years have wanted answers to your question! There is obviously a capital mystery about music, so don’t mind me if I start by saying that your use of the term “meaning” is far too indiscriminate to serve here. However, I can hardly do more than suggest a few aspects that you can pursue further, on your own, without expecting a definitive solution to the problem.

First, consider that music-as-such is not a fact in the world — it exists solely because some creatures have the capacity to mould and resolve streams of molecules floating in the air into a form of communication. E.g. crickets, birds, fish, mammals make sounds which other creatures can discern and interpret. Thus humans intuit very well the menace of a dog’s growl or the love song of a nightingale. But to extract meaning from a growl, we must put it into words, such as “this dog is warning me that it will bite if I make moves to take away its bone”. That’s a lot of words to denote a simple sound! So for convenience let me define the growl as carrying an import and my words as denoting. It is an all-important differentiation.

These two disparate forms of communication are handled by different cortices. When speech is transmitted, the audio cortex recognises the form of molecular transport as an explicit message and refers it to the conceptual faculty, whose memory stores the denotations of all verbal signals known to me. The forms of musical signals, however, are recognised as an implicit communication and referred to the aesthetic faculty, which is concerned with feelings, emotions, imagination and the like. Hence the differentiation between “meaning” (explicit) and “import” (implicit); and the upshot is that two different kinds of reaction are involved.

How then can we explain a song with words? This is in fact the crucial component in the meaning vs import debate. Let’s say a girl’s lover died in a war and she sings “I will treasure the memory of our love forever.” Try to work out in how many different ways she could say this. Maybe five or ten, no more. Yet this motive recurs in music hundreds of times over centuries and each time, the same sentiment provokes different kinds of musical articulation from composers. This is because vocabulary and syntax are a limited resource for the expression of emotional states — so many times we are “lost for words” to bring out our inner turmoil — whereas music has an almost infinite repertoire. More music has been written for Romeo and Juliet than Shakespeare could ever have dreamed of!

I cannot resist another example. Millions of people around the world express their faith by mumbling the same words day after day in their prayers, presumably expecting God to be listening. But is it not more likely that sincere emotion must sooner or later be corrupted to an habitual performance? I suggest it is inevitable; and this was precisely the motivation for Pope Gregory I to encourage singing these texts, which in due course encouraged innumerable musicians to supply a steady stream of new music for singing the same words. It must have sunk into the consciousness of religious authorities that not the words, but the tone of voice wafts up into the divine realm. Communications with God do not need words; God can discern the emotions of faith plainly enough. And so, in principle, the musical phrases articulating the various parts of the text of prayers could be sounded while lips and tongue remain mute, as the words automatically cling to the minds of the faithful through constant association.

What I have just described is the inception of music as an autonomous representation of the human soul. The most suggestive way of understanding the import of music is therefore, that it produces in our aesthetic consciousness a kind of mirror image of the relevant emotional states that are lodged in memory and that our perceptual faculties take this up as a trigger for retrieving analogous states of feeling from memory.

I must stop here, as my point was to clear up the error of thinking about music in terms of meaning. I could add, the soul needs no meanings either; it needs “soul food”; and this is really the heart of the matter. We are creatures of feeling and emotion, imagination and creativity. Intellect is another issue, but scarcely ever in touch with the inner self. Music, however, has that power — the capacity of connecting you with, and igniting, your authentic self.