Morals – where do we stand with them?

Douglas asked:

The phrase “the blind leading the blind” is a reference to moral choice. It appears over 100 times in the Bible. Is it possible to reintroduce moral choice effectively to a person? I’ve found no success. How to pose a moral dilemma to a person in denial?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

I don’t agree that the phrase is about morals. It has a much wider use as a metaphor of certain aspects of the human condition. That it appears 100 times in the Scriptures (including the New Testament) is therefore hardly noteworthy. However, the scriptures lay great stress on an underlying notion of (dis)obedience, which could be taken as the focus of moral behaviour — but this is debatable and not everyone would see it that way. We might e.g. take into consideration that it is not uncommon for biblical protagonists to argue with God about the disparity between his and their own sense of justice. Hence it is also useful to compare the Sermon of the Mount, where we find 90 mentions of reward and punishment without a single instance of faith as a blessing in its own right.

So it occurs to me that you have inadvertently pre-loaded your question with an illicit association of the Christian religion with morality. Now this happens to be a highly topical issue for us today, in an age of weakening faith which induced many writers (religious and secular alike) to a call for reflection, along the lines of “are morals possible without religion?” Therein lies in fact the answer to the preloading I referred to.

For it fails to take account two facts that cannot be left out of sight: First, that Christianity is today embedded in a global network of religions and regarded even by many of its followers as no more than an equal to several others. Second, that the historical record of practical Christian morality exhibits several phases of horrifying derailment (e.g. witch burning) that one would prefer to forget as they can scarcely be used for an advertisement.

Add to this an apparently growing disaffection with both Christian morality and spirituality and we are homing in on the burning focus of your question — for which the real issue is not how to reintroduce moral choice or how to pose moral dilemmas to doubters, but rather how to re-ignite a remedial sense of moral hope into Christian societies.

I will not pretend that I have the solution to hand. Yet there is one aspect you need to be better aware of: namely, is that morality is not a code — unlike the rules of ethics or the legal systems of nations, moral rules are not written down, but mostly taught by word of mouth and example, and drawn from the customs and traditions of whatever social collective one belongs to. Inevitably, therefore, they frequently differ from one cultural realm to another, from one religion to another, even from one village or city to another; and in addition they change much more often than ethics or laws in reponse to external influences. This opens the door for anyone who wishes to make such a claim that all morals are relative, temporary and subjective, as well as relying on authoritarian figures and/or institutions imposing them in their own interests rather than that of the people. Taken together, they form a considerable impediment to the wishes implied in your question.

On miracles

Melissa asked:

I have a good friend whom I’ve known since she was born. She grew up in a really religious family, I had no problem with her telling me some things about her belief and God until she met an old friend, who also is from an religious family.

This girl has told me some stories which gave me goosebumps. Things like she had screws in her leg because of a car accident and when they had to operate her leg to get those screws out the doctors said that the screws mysteriously disappeared. Another story was that she ran away from someone and climbed on an old garage roof. The roof collapsed under her feet but with the power of god she was able to jump 2 meters back on the roof.

My friend unfortunately does believe all those stories of her and I feel like she is getting to deep into those things. I hope that you can give me advice or a second opinion on this.

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Let’s get this straight, Melissa. A friend of a friend of yours is one of many people around the world — millions, in fact — who believe in miracles. You are very unlikely to find anyone here (on a web site devoted to philosophy) who believes in miracles, so you would not be totally surprised if we said, ‘We don’t believe, etc.’

However, that is not in the least bit helpful to you. To anyone belonging to the large group of ‘believers in miracles’, philosophers are miserable sceptics who wouldn’t recognize ‘the truth’ even if it slapped them in the face. You can imagine the response if you said to your friend that a philosopher had said to you, etc., and your friend said to her friend that a philosopher had told her friend, etc.

A long line of Popes (to quote just one example) have presided over canonizations based on reports of miracles, which they presumably believed. Catholicism (to name just one religion) has given the seal of approval to the belief in miracles. — Well, I’m not going to tell you my politically incorrect opinion about this!

David Hume, in his book Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779) gives a concise and persuasive account of why we should not believe in miracles. I will summarize Hume’s central argument, which is about probability, using an up-to-date example.

Probability is involved everywhere, when we form beliefs. Take the news, for example. You read or hear a news report and you think, ‘I just don’t believe that. It couldn’t possibly happen.’ A tiger is loose in the Florida Keys and is attacking local residents. The report could turn out to be true (recently a tiger escaped from a nearby zoo) or false (the ‘tiger’ is just an unusually large wild cat). But without more information you have to make a judgement call.

That’s all scientists do. They look for the best theory. Sometimes it turns out that the ‘best theory’ is false. Theories are in a constant process of testing and appraisal. However, one assumption of the scientific enterprise is that the universe is law governed. If that assumption turned out to be wrong (which it could conceivably be) then everything we had so far found out about how the universe works would be trashed. If miracles of the kind you describe do actually happen, then we can say good bye to science. As Hume says, it would be ‘a greater miracle’ if that turned out to be the case. It is more probable that reports of miracles are false, than that the universe is not law governed.

Improbable, but not impossible. There is a hypothesis that is taken seriously, ‘Simulation Theory’, according to which the entire universe is a computer simulation, like ‘the Matrix’. In the Matrix ‘laws can be bent’. Anyone who has played a 3D computer game is familiar with this. Monsters can appear from nowhere, and then disappear without a trace. If Simulation Theory were true, there could be vampires, zombies, werewolves, screws could disappear from broken legs, and girls could do a standing jump of two meters. (Women athletes have jumped higher than two meters, using the ‘Fosbury Flop’ technique but that requires a short run-up.)

There is to date, so far as I am aware, no evidence in favour of Simulation Theory, which is why I called it a ‘hypothesis’. It’s something we can imagine, like Descartes’ ‘evil demon’. Which is not to rule out the possibility at some time in the future evidence might turn up that points to the possibility that the hypothesis may be true, after all.

Don’t even bother to try to tell your friend this, because it won’t make any impression. Your friend’s friend is in no danger, however. She doesn’t need to be ‘saved’. There are millions like her, as I have indicated, who are perfectly happy with their beliefs and their world view. She is ‘crazy’ by my lights — the lights of a trained philosopher — but safely so. If she starts doing crazy things, then that’s another matter, in which case a call to social services might be needed.

Space, time and reality

Robert asked:

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

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

Good question! What a predicament for all of us, not just philosophers, to be told on one hand that time flows, which ought to mean it is a measurable quantity as our clocks show us; or, in the view of eternity, there is no such thing as time.

However, it is only a human dilemma. To understand the world as the theatre where past, present and future rules, we need a constant that hovers over temporality – something that ticks impartially in the background with unwavering regularity, but has no beginning nor end. We take in our stride (or try to ignore) that such an infinite clockwork makes it impossible to identify a moment in time, as likewise it is impossible to assign to any temporal occasion a definite location in infinite space. We need such a constant to deputise for the one thing we don’t have: a reference point at rest in the centre.

And so we devise conceptual makeshifts such as the fabled ‘big bang’, to which we cling as a feature to help us with ontological reasoning. We need this sort of thing so that science can operate instrumentally, e.g. measuring time as well as space by using the velocity of light in a vacuum as a constant. Yet light is also a phenomenon, and so we go round in circles.

Hence the answer to your specific question must be detached from the dubious conception of time as some kind of res fluidum. The age of the earth is simply a number that answers to its orbital motions around the sun, retrofitted to the moment of its ejection from the sun. It is a very inaccurate measure, since the length of each of those years is not a fixed quantity – consider that the very word “year” defines “1 orbit”, which varies constantly even now and compels us to insert leap years every now and then – but only God knows the length of leap years over a span of several billion years!

All this is bamboozling in high degree. Factually regarded the Earth’s age is not measurable by any means at our disposal. Whatever age our scientists derive from the solar carousel must revert to human intuition; and this would not ensure that the numbers associated with the genesis of the solar system are intelligible – if they were doubled or even multiplied by a hundred, would anyone genuinely comprehend the difference?

In sum: Make do. Don’t worry about time and space and how to reconcile their infinitude with a concrete distance/duration with which you can associate empirically. An existent cannot be finite and infinite. In fact, an existent cannot be infinite, as all existents are made of finite parts. But being finite, they must exist in time, i.e. to begin at one time and end at another. And now the only means at our disposal to unravel this question is to consult Einstein’s relativity. However be prepared for more perplexity here, because with “curved space” and “time dilation” the aforesaid problems return with full force.

Not a satisfactory answer to your question, I agree; but I suspect there really is no answer. Which may be one reason why philosophers have struggled with these conceptions ever since Anaximander put the idea of an “apeiron” (boundless cosmos) on the map nearly 2600 years ago.

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!