Knowledge versus spirituality

Gagik asked:

About 2 weeks ago in a religion class we were talking about materialism vs spirituality. The claim of my teacher was that at the end of the life materialistic goods would not matter. My reply was that knowledge is very important for people, so important that it is easily objectified and it could be materialistic in a way, for example: If someone really wants to become a doctor they have to learn for it to have a better future buy things so on and so on. So my question is this, does the knowledge of the scriptures mean that it is materialistic and it can be objectified ? forgive me for using banal words, I am working on it.

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Is knowledge a ‘material good’? There is a strong tradition within Christianity that the quest for knowledge – or, at least, certain kinds of knowledge – is an expression of human vanity, and should be suppressed. ‘Credo, quia absurdum.’ (‘I believe, because it’s absurd.’). So, yes, even knowledge of the Holy Scriptures (whatever your faith happens to be) could be termed materialistic, if you are going about this as someone who is keenly interested in religion as human phenomenon, rather than someone who is devoutly religious seeking revelation.

Here’s another way of putting your question: Is knowledge for its own sake in any way better than material possessions and enjoyments, so far as the pursuit of spirituality is concerned? Aren’t they both in the same category, as things we ‘own’ and ‘enjoy’?

In the Middle Ages, the defence of anyone pursuing knowledge against religious criticism was that one is striving to ‘appreciate better God’s great works’. Learning about the world of nature, or science, can be seen as a religioius quest, up to a point. Maybe they believed this – up to a point.

Consider the story of Galileo, or Descartes. I don’t know how devout these men really were. Galileo was up against a view of the physical world derived from Aristotle that was considered at the time to immune to challenge. Anyone who questioned that view was challenging the authority of the Church. Galileo was forced to recant his view that ‘the Earth moves’ by the Inquisition. Descartes suppressed some of his own writings for fear of suffering a similar fate, presenting his radical theory of mind-body interactionism in the form of a defence of the notions of the ‘soul’ and ‘God’.

I would like to consider a view that is perhaps not that popular today, that all this impressive knowledge is a kind of human vanity. The world is in incredible place full of, wherever you look, through the lens of physics, or chemistry, or biology, and all the other sciences or indeed the humanities. Art, literature, music. Enough to make any one of these realms your whole life.

And, yet, you might still be missing something. I am talking about the sense of ‘what it all means’, the feeling that motivates religion. Can you be spiritual, without believing in a God? Is there room, in our lives, for focusing on the ultimate questions of existence, regardless of how the world may be in all its incredible variety and detail? If there is, then that is an activity that I would consider part of the enterprise of ‘metaphysics’, as I conceive it.

Plato, Parmenides and the One

Delicia asked:

Why did Plato disagree with Parmenides’ philosophy?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

For me, this is a question of more than historic interest. But, first, the textual evidence.

Plato’s late dialogue Parmenides records a fictionalized meeting between the young Socrates and Parmenides where the two great philosophers take turns to criticize one another’s views.

In the first part of the Parmenides, by far the most studied, Parmenides argues against Plato’s theory of Forms, here attributed to the young Socrates, although we cannot be sure how close Socrates and Plato were on this question. You may have come across the ‘Third Man Argument’ which Parmenides uses to undermine the theory of Forms dialectically, by means of an argument from vicious regress.

In the second part of the Parmenides, Socrates employs his dialectical method to reduce the Parmenidean theory of the eternal and unchanging One to various kinds of self-contradiction. Current views are divided as to how seriously this part was meant to be taken. Was it just an exercise for Plato’s students? The general problem is that, when dealing with ultimate questions, it is not at all surprising that we should encounter contradictions and paradoxes, not to mention language simply giving out.

Hegel attacked this problem but, again, there are many who are unconvinced by his story of dialectical ‘triads’ starting with Being-Nothing-Becoming. – To say this is, of course, incredibly glib, but I’m assuming that reading Hegel’s ‘Logic’ is not part of your assignment. (I admire Hegel’s dialectic but I don’t believe it. I am (even) less qualified to talk about Plotinus who attempted a not dissimilar task.)

Rather than get entangled in textual debate, I would like to consider the matter afresh. Yes, I do think that Parmenides was onto something. There is something Real, something that is, or could be termed, ‘ultimate’. But, if there is, what can we legitimately say about it? And how to connect the ultimate Real to the familiar world of appearances, of ‘sights and sounds’ as Plato calls it?

In the surviving recorded fragments of Parmenides’ writings, an account of the world of appearance is offered, but so far as I am aware no scholar has been able to find the argument that connects the world of appearances to the One. Parmenides basically says, ‘This is my account of appearances, take it or leave it, but whatever you do, don’t mistake this for the truth, as so many humans foolishly do.’

That’s just not good enough. The task that we are given is saving appearances. An an account of Reality that fails to save appearances, that is to say, fails to account for the very fact that there is a ‘world of appearance’, cannot be adequate. That was Plato’s impetus and challenge.

His response was the theory of Forms. Like the Presocratic philosophers who came after Parmenides, he was willing to give the status of the ‘eternal and unchanging’ to something other than just the One. He proposed entities he called ‘Forms’. There would not be this world of appearances unless there was some kind of blueprint or template from which particular copies could be made. Unlike the example of a negative and a photographic print, however, the original is not in the world but outside it.

One question here is how many Forms we need, and Plato is Plato is not at all clear on this point. Are there Forms of disgusting things like mud or hair, for example, as the fictional Parmenides asks in Plato’s dialogue? Is there just one Form of dog, or mammal, or animal? What about different varieties of dogs? What should we say about the Form of ‘motor car’ or ‘computer’?

Although I’m not a great fan of Forms, I can see a connection here to simulation theory, the idea that this world of appearances has been created out of 1s and 0s in a galactic super-computer. The problem here is that that’s just more of the same. A ‘super-computer’, whatever it is made of, is just more stuff, just more of ‘something that appears’.

For me, the big question concerns contingency. As Parmenides argues, if ‘nothing’ is unthinkable then, of necessity, something ‘is’. The One is necessary. That’s the beginning of an answer to the question, ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ The next step is the one that is crucial: how to get from the One to this world of appearances? Is there a coherent story to tell here? Can you see a way to improve on Plato’s response? At whatever level you look at the world, you encounter things that ‘could have been otherwise’. There might not have been any dogs (or wolves, etc.). Or the so-called ‘laws of nature’ might have been different.

Theists will appeal to the ‘God’ theory at this point. Plato had ‘the Good’ as the highest Form, that somehow, in a way not explained, accounts for all the rest. Can we accept, then, as an alternative, that contingency itself is, in some sense an ‘ultimate’? Or is that thought unthinkable, as Einstein thought when he remarked that ‘God does not play dice with the universe’?

Becoming a self-taught philosopher

Jason asked:

How does one become a self-taught philosopher? In particular I am drawn to such models as Ken Wilber (Integral Theory), Ayn Rand (Objectivism, as an example not as a thought to contribute to) and Eric Hoffer (the Longshore Philosopher) as well as Hayy ibn Yaqzans. I do have an MA in theological studies from a progressive seminary that had a strong interest in the 3rd wave feminism, postmodernity and indigenous thought (I have to admit I am enamoured with V.F. Cordova, the first native woman to get a Ph.D in philosophy and her challenge to western thought). Another obvious set of inspirations for self-taught philosophy would be the Victorian Sage writers as well as contemporary writers in the creative nonfiction/ Wisdom writing tradition.

My own project is to look at how neurodiversity challenges our notions of thought, human-beingness and several fundamental concepts.

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

With an MA from a legitimate degree granting institution, one would hardly describe you as ‘self taught’, but I get the point that you are looking to teach yourself philosophy, as you understand that notion. From what you say, my glib response would be that you already are a ‘philosopher’. You are also a student of philosophy, as all philosophers are. Debating with one another, we also learn from one another.

Before we go any further, a warning that my answer is not going to be along the well-trodden lines of, ‘You need to study such-and-such, and read so-and-so.’ As it happens, I did my undergraduate studies at an English university in the second half of the 70s — from which you can gather that I am trained in the methods of analytic philosophy. However, I have long since grown away from my roots. I did have to teach myself at that point, because I had no model to follow. Yet it sounds like a strong dose of Frege, Russell and Wittgenstein (both early and late) is just what you need.

Sometimes one gets the impression that philosophers working within academia consider themselves the only real ‘philosophers’, i.e. academic philosophers. The idea has gotten a hold that there is such a thing as the ‘state of the art’ in philosophy, which is nowhere to be found outside the University. Which is nonsense, to my ear.

On the other side, the good thing about universities is that the academics who work there are given the time to think and debate. But then so are monks. (There was a time when monasteries were one of the chief sources of philosophical enlightenment.)

I have books by Ken Wilber and Ayn Rand which were both given to me by ardent ‘fans’. The fact that I haven’t made much progress with them says more about me than about those authors. These days, I don’t read. I only have one Question, which I have repeated sufficiently many times, that there hardly seems any point in rehearsing that again.

Your question sounds interesting. How diverse can human brains be? A lot more, perhaps, than many are willing to admit. More interesting still is the notion that there are forms of thinking or ‘brain functioning’ that we have yet to encounter because they are still to be achieved. When we do get there, who knows?

What is the core, the essence of being a philosopher, or, more specifically, a philosopher in the 21st century? Is it possible that what you are asking me is how one can earn a living from philosophy outside the normal channels of academia? From publishing books, say? Or, gathering a coterie of followers? I found a way, but it required brain-crunching work (see my collection of over 1,000 reviews of student work at

If you get an original idea, and if you are good at putting that across, then some time in the future you might well find your work on the same bookseller shelf as Rand and Wilber. Would that be it, or would you still want more? The answer to that question shows the kind of ‘philosopher’ you are striving to be.

Haunted by solipsism

Ian asked:

I want to know how to deal with solipsism. I’ve been living in agony over it for the past several months and it just haunts me to no end. I makes life small and narrow and it feels like there is no point to doing anything.

What can I do about it?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

I’ve written a number of posts on this topic, but I want to focus this time on the particular feeling of dread at being ‘alone’. The fact that this is a metaphysical and not a factual or contingent solitude seems little comfort when you see (or ‘seem to see’) your predicament so clearly.

Solipsism could be true. That is to say, so far as you could ever know it is possible that I don’t exist. The words that you are now reading on the screen are just phenomena that fill up your subjective (and the ‘only’) world. Where these phenomena come from (if that makes any sense for the solipsist) or what they ultimately represent remains a mystery. Why me?!

This is no comfort to you. But you and I are not looking for comfort, we are looking for the truth, aren’t we? To see this clearly, to experience the feeling of disorientation and indeed dismay is an achievement. You see more than others see. But, as I like to state to my students, ‘consider the possibility that you are wrong’.

I am stuck on a different but related point. I don’t believe that solipsism is true. I can’t prove this. (I once thought I could, but I now think I was wrong about the possibility of a proof.) But if solipsism is false, and you exist, and billions of other humans exist, I mean, actually exist and not merely ‘seem to exist’, then another question arises: why am I here at all?

I wrote a book about this with a long and clumsy title: I Might Not Have Existed But Someone Exactly Like Me Might Have Existed In My Place. It’s on Amazon, if you’re curious to read.

After years, decades in fact, of edging forward with this topic, I seem to have hit a wall. I believe that there is such a thing as The Real. I mean, how things really are, the ultimate explanation, or cause, or, I don’t know what — of everything. But, most importantly, the reason why I am here and not merely someone ‘exactly like’ me.

But what could this be? Not God, not ‘super-strings’, not any kind of matter, even ‘dark matter’. There is no reason, or possible reason that I can see or think of. So far as the world is concerned, ‘someone exactly like me’ would fulfil exactly the same function, server exactly the same purpose (if there was ultimately such a thing as ‘purpose’) that I serve.

What is most vexing is that 99.99 per cent of human beings simply do not see this wall. They are not prompted to ask the question. They are so enmeshed, sucked into this actual world and all its contingencies, that they don’t even know how to formulate the question in their own minds.

So, solipsism is ‘an’ answer but it is not a very good answer and it is not the only possible answer. In which case all one can do is keep searching. If you are interested in pursuing this topic further, you could look at my latest YouTube video, Living in the Dark.

On a challenge to the ‘naturalistic fallacy’

Greg asked:

Where is the following challenge to the “naturalistic fallacy’ weak? If energy is the source of all action; and its principles dictate that action; then: our actions are dictated by energy’s principles (whatever they are).

This is to say, our principles of action are principles of energy. If we seek an ethical principle to be a supreme a priori and a posteriori principle of behavior, i.e., action, we must consider energy’s principles of action. Hartmut Bossel (2007) claims that “values are not subjective inventions of the human mind, but are basic system requirements emerging from a system’s interaction with its environment.” If we are agents of energy, is “ought” a choice?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

It is weak. The first thing to point out (and this isn’t the main source of weakness although it might seem so on a superficial reading) is that ‘energy’ is a term from physics. Energy is defined as the capacity to do work. A living human body has more energy than a burning candle, but both could, in principle, with a suitable setup of pulleys and levers and other equipment, raise a 100 ton boulder. Very slowly. (And ignoring problems of overcoming static friction, of course.)

However, I can see a metaphorical use for the term ‘energy’ when applied to human action. The energy to get off your couch and do the washing or have a jog. Robert Pirsig uses the old-fashioned term, ‘gumption’, which has more to do with psychological motivation than with physical strength or energy. You can be physically very tired, but with sufficient motivation pursue a task long into the night.

So let’s talk about motivation, or, if you like the ‘springs’ of human action. The human being can be seen as a ‘system’, in the sense that we designed for a purpose by evolution. Legs are good for walking and running. Arms for lifting, hands for manipulating and so on. You wouldn’t normally use your feet to do what you can do with your hands. You wouldn’t use your arms or legs to do something you can do with your head (e.g. solving a problem involving basic arithmetic).

A central heating thermostat is an example of a simple ‘system’. A missile guidance computer is a more complex example. What they both have in common is a goal. The goal of a central heating system thermostat is to keep the temperature within certain limits. The goal of a missile guidance computer is to steer the missile to its target.

Human beings have certain basic instincts which they share. But unlike physical systems that human beings have constructed, or non-human animals that are interacting with their environment in the way that evolution ‘designed’ them to do, human beings have choice. I chose to answer your question, this morning, Greg. It wasn’t a foregone conclusion by any means, as I have been quite busy at the computer these last few days. But my conscience prodded me and, on this occasion unlike others, I listened.

You could say that your question piqued my interest sufficiently to give me the ‘energy’ (gumption) to tap these keys and compose an answer. (I haven’t heard of Bossel, by the way, but that doesn’t mean anything.)

I’m not getting into the debate about free will and whether human ‘choice’ is or is not ultimately an illusion. It is sufficient to point out that there are no ‘system requirements’ for human beings to do what they do, beyond certain basic limits. I don’t have any choices if I’m dead, so staying alive is obviously one necessity. Another might be to stay one step ahead of the law, or have sufficient funds for a quick getaway. Or it might be getting people to view my YouTube videos or like my Facebook page. Everyone is different, right?

The ‘naturalistic fallacy’, so-called by the British philosopher G.E. Moore, was the belief that what is ‘good’ can be defined in ‘natural’ terms, i.e. terms that do not imply a pre-existing valuation. To date, the basic principle that Moore was alluding to has not been refuted. The huge debate about what is ‘good’ for a human being that has raged since the time of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle will go on, and there are no short-cuts to a solution.

What’s the point of knowing anything if I am going to die?

George asked:

If there is no afterlife, I will forget everything I know, so what is the point of knowing anything?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Amazingly, in the 21 years that ‘Ask a Philosopher’ has been running, I have never encountered this question. And it’s a good one, George.

At first sight, the question just seems a particular example of, ‘What is the point of achieving, striving, hoping for, etc?’ When I die, everything I have, everything I have achieved, comes to dust.

But then you realize that that’s not so. If I have done something of lasting benefit to others, anything, then that continues after I die. Just as my material possessions will pass to the beneficiaries of my Will. If I have made a positive difference to the world, then that doesn’t depend on my being around to enjoy the thanks and praise, etc.

On the other hand, my pleasures and enjoyments are real, just because they are happening now. I might relish the memory of a really great pint of real ale. But that is not the same as actually drinking and enjoying it. In other words, the hedonist, or refined hedonist — Epicurus, for example — has nothing to fear from death. The quality of life is a function of the quality of pleasure. All that matters is that I maximize that quality, using all the technical knowledge at my disposal.

The notion that if I die I am somehow being ‘deprived’ of future pleasures is nonsense. I don’t bemoan the fact that there are many fine examples of real ale that I will never get to taste, not even if I lived for ever. That’s simply because around the world today, new beers are being created faster than I would have the physical capacity to drink them, even if I was granted indefinite life. (If you are more of an intellectual sort, substitute ‘reading books’ for ‘drinking beers’.)

There’s a lot to be said for hedonism, I’m not knocking it.

But knowledge is something very different. I am talking about my personal knowledge, rather than knowledge which will have lasting benefit for the human race. I want to know, regardless of whether or not that knowledge will ever be passed on to others.

But why? What’s the point of it? You can take pleasure in knowing something, or the prospect of getting to know something, but that isn’t it’s point. There are things that it would give me pleasure to know, and I would love to know. And there are other things I would hate to know, such as what Donald Trump looks like in the nude, or what people I walk past in the street are thinking. (Telepathy would be sheer hell, extrapolating from Sartre.)

Knowledge just for its own sake is rubbish. You fill your mind with so much useless information. And yet, there are things I am desperate to know, and things that after a great effort I have come to know. And when I die that will all be gone!

Let’s consider another sort of example. It would be great to learn Russian. That’s something I would love to do if I had the energy and time. Or nuclear physics. Unfortunately, that will never happen. But suppose I have been sentenced to death, and given just six months, with nothing else to do than learn Russian or nuclear physics. The activity might be pleasurable, it might help to distract me. But it would be so obviously pointless. And yet, there is another kind of knowledge which I would strive for with every fibre of my being: Why am I here? What am I? What is this ‘world’, really?

I suspect — and it is no more than a suspicion — that in this lies the germ of a thought that, somehow, though one can’t explain it, knowledge can save me. I mean, literally and not just metaphorically. To know something that would render the prospect of death of no consequence whatsoever. Easy, if you are looking for evidence or proof of an afterlife. More difficult if, like Epicurus, you hold that my death is ‘nothing to me’ because I won’t be around to experience it.

My question, and maybe yours too, George, is are those the only options?