Induction – Lecture 2

October 7, 2015

BaconLast week we spoke about the difference between science and religion. We said it could be conceptualised as one between belief and facts. The more, we investigated, however, what a fact is, the less certain we became of its status as a starting point for scientific investigation. Common sense might tell us that facts are just out there and we simply observe them and scientific theories are merely collections of these observations, but when we look at the history of science, however, it is clear that this is not how science works. What we take as facts are already determined by the way we understand and see the world, and our observations are equally shaped by this background conceptuality. In this lecture, we are going to investigate the problem of induction, which is probably the classic form of the philosophy of science, and we shall see that we’ll come up against the same barrier again. Moreover the knowledge that science has of the world cannot itself be infallible, because of the very way that it interprets these facts.

Ordinarily we might think that scientific theories are obtained from facts through observation and this is what makes it different from belief. But what does it exactly mean that theories are obtained or derived from facts? How do we get from the one to the other? What we mean here is something logical rather than temporal. We don’t just mean that first of all there is a collection of facts, and then a theory, as though facts were just pebbles on a beach that we pick up. A theory, on the contrary, is supposed to tell us something about these facts before we have even discovered them. It is about meaning and context, rather than just what comes first or second in a temporal order.

What then do we mean by derivation when we speak about logic? We don’t have to go into the complexities of logic here but just the basic form since all we are interested is how theories originate from facts. Logic is based upon deduction. Here is a valid deductive argument, which comes from Ladyman:

All human beings are mortal

Socrates is a human being

Socrates is mortal. (Ladyman 2002, p.19)

1 and 2 are the premises and 3 is the conclusion. You cannot deny the conclusion if you take the premises as true. We can change the premises slightly, however, as Ladyman writes, and the deduction would be wrong.

All human beings are animals

Bess is an animal

Therefore Bess is a human being (Ladyman 2002, p.19)

What is important here is that it’s the form of the argument itself that is wrong. The conclusion does not follow from the premises even if one accepts them. Bess could be any kind of animal. What is positive about deductive arguments is that they are truth preserving. That is, if the premises are true and the argument is valid, then the conclusion is. The problem is that the conclusion does not contain any more information than the premises. It does not tell you anything more about the world and surely this is what science does.

From this is follows that if science is derived from facts then it cannot be done so logically, because logic cannot tell us whether a fact is true or not. If we know there are true facts then we can logically relate them together (logic is ‘truth preserving’), but it is only from experience whether we know they are true or not. Take for example the scientific law that metal expands when it heats. It does not matter how many times that I repeat this, as Chalmers argues, it does not logically follow (as is implied below) that all metals will expand when heated:

metal x expanded when it was heated

metal y expanded when it was heated

metal z expanded when it was heated

All metals expand when heated (Chalmers 1999, p.44)

If scientific theories don’t come from facts logically, then how are they derived? The answer must be through experience itself; that is to say, inductively. What do we mean by induction? First of all the difference between deductive and inductive arguments is that in the latter the conclusion always goes beyond what is contained in the premises, as the example above shows. I can never be certain that all metals will expand when heated, because this is precisely what I assert when I move from a singular instances (this metal expands when heated) to the universal judgement that all do so.

How then can I adjudicate between a bad and good inductive argument in the way that I did with deductive ones? It would seem, through common sense, that I might be able to justify my universal judgements if I go through a number of singular observations. In other words that I observe a large number of samples of metal to investigate whether they do expand or not, and if I observe in this large number that they do, then I would be justified in asserting ‘All metals expand when heated’. Thus the laws of induction would be

1) The number of observations should be large

2) They must be repeated under a wide range of conditions

3) There should be no exceptions.

It is precisely for this reason that English philosopher and scientist Francis Bacon can up with his ‘new method’.[1] First of all this method is negative. The point is that we should avoid falling into bad arguments rather than coming up with new deductive ones. Bacon’s method is rules about how to practice science by avoiding some of the worst errors. These errors he called ‘idols of the mind’: that we tend to see order and regularity in nature when there is none is the idol of the tribe; that our judgements and are shaped by our language and concepts rather than what we see is the idol of the marketplace; and finally that are views of nature can be distorted by our philosophical and metaphysical systems of thought is the idol of the theatre.[2] From this follows the positive content of Bacon’s method that we ought to make observations of nature that are free of these idols. It is from the mass of information gained through observation that we should make generalisations, rather than understanding our observations through generalisations, which he accuses the philosophers of doing. This he calls the ‘natural and experimental history’.

It is important to understand what Bacon meant by observation is not just looking but experiments, and it this emphasis on experiments that distinguishes the new method from the old Aristotelian one. It is experiments that preserve the objectivity of observations. First of all it allows them to be quantified and secondly that they can be repeated by others and thus tested as to their reliability. It is this data from experiments that are then put into tables. To use then example from Bacon of heat: first we have the table of Essence and Presence that lists those things that are directly part of the phenomena of heat; secondly, we have the list of Deviation and Absence, which lists those phenomena that are related to the first but have no heat; and then we have the list of Comparison, where features that have a quantity of heat are listed and quantified. The empirical method is one of elimination. Let us say I argue that the colour white is explanation of heat. Then I would check my tables and I would see that not all the phenomena that hot are white, or that some phenomena that are white are not hot and so on. White, then, could not be part of theory of heat. Through this process of elimination Bacon explained that heat was caused by the ‘extensive motion of parts’, which is not far from the modern kinetic theory of heat.

Bacon believed one can discover the forms that made what we observed possible, even though they were not directly perceivable. These forms where the direct physical cause of what we saw. This was the rejection of final causes, where natural phenomenon where viewed as purposive. The Aristotelian explanation, for example, that stones fall to the ground was because the earthly element sought to fall to the centre of the earth. Teleological explanations such as these are only suitable for human actions (since humans unlike stones do have desires) but not natural phenomena. The ubiquity of physical causes is the major different between new empirical science of the 17th century and the old science of Aristotle’s era that had dominated the explanation of nature for so long.

There are, however, problems with induction. First of all what is the status of the non-observed forms that are the physical cause of what we observe. How can we make a leap from what is seen to what is not seen? It is possible to see how heat might be explained by Bacon’s method since in fact we can see the motion, but how would we go about explaining radiation? Also we see in science that there can be two competing forms that explain the same visible phenomena such as the two theories of light, for example. Bacon does have an answer for the last problem. He says that we ought to set up two competing experiments that would test what we observe and we could see which was the more successful. But this already demonstrates what we might doubt about Bacon’s new method. In this case are not the theories themselves determining the experiments and not what we observe? Bacon says that science is made from two pillars: observation and induction and that we ought to be able to observe nature without prejudice (the prejudices being the idols of the mind). This is perhaps what most people think that science is. We take many particular instances and then we generalise a law. Yet the problem is how we account for this mysterious leap from the particular to the universal. How many instances make a general law and if there is an exception does this mean that law is no longer a law? There are two problems with the principle of induction as Bacon describes it. One is that we might doubt that any observation is unprejudiced. This is not just in a negative sense as Bacon describes it, but also positively, that without a theory it is hard to know what one would observe in the first place. Secondly, we might worry about how it is possible to go from many observations to a general law. Just because X has happened many times before, how do we know we know that it will happen again? This problem of induction, as it is called, and was introduced by the Hume, and has for many made naïve inductivism untenable. We shall investigate this problem in next week’s lecture.

Works Cited

Chalmers, A.F., 1999. What is this Thing Called Science?, St. Lucia, Qld.: University of Queensland.

Ladyman, J., 2002. Understanding Philosophy of Science, London; New York: Routledge.

[1] See (Ladyman 2002, pp.22–5) for this summary of Bacon’s method.

[2] As we can see, what Bacon sees as idols, we might see as unavoidable necessities and this precisely prevents us from accepting the inductive explanation of science.

What is Science? Lecture 1

September 30, 2015

This is a coursemars-lineae-slopes-hale-crater-perspective2-PIA19916-br2 about the place of science in our everyday lives. Most of us are not scientists and do not even plan to be scientists, but nonetheless science dominates our conception of the world. Most of us also, I suppose, believe that science tells us the truth about the world, and that generally what scientists say can be trusted. If we want to know the answer to something, or to a problem, then it is to science we turn. This is not only the case when it concerns nature, but also ourselves. But why do we trust science so much, even when many of us do not do science or have very little knowledge of what it is that scientists do?

Is this because science, for us, has become like a religion? How ironic this might be, since many scientists, if not the most famous (though it is not the case that all of them are so) are atheists and would see science as completely the opposite to religious belief. Think for example of the publication of Dawkin’s The God Delusion and the publicity around it.[1] Here is someone who thinks that science and religion are completely the opposite. Indeed it is the duty of science to rid the world of religion entirely by demonstrating that all religious people are irrational, and worse, violent. Personally, I do not think that science and religion are making the same claims, though there are many religious people who think they do. If religion is a science, then I am certain it can only be a pseudo-science, and can make no proper scientific claims at all. But equally, if religion is not a science, which I think it is not, then it absurd to argue that it is a pseudo-science. Are not religion and science doing different things, and making different claims?

But what do we mean by a science and what does science do that religion does not? The answer might be that science has to do with facts and religion beliefs. But are we absolutely sure what we mean by facts and how are they the basis of the science? A fact seems to be something I observe. I say, ‘There is a table in front of me’ and there really is a table there in front of me. How do I know that? I can, because I can see it with my eyes. Facts then are  something verified with the senses, in this case sight, whereas beliefs do not appear to be so. If a Christian says Jesus was resurrected on the third day, how can it be verified by simply looking at it? At most it is a report, but I cannot verify it myself. Religion does not seem to be about facts at all. It is something subjective, personal and a matter of faith rather than reason.

Is this opposition watertight though? Perhaps not if we think that difference between religion and science is just that one is about facts and the other not. Are facts really that simple? Isn’t there more to facts, so to speak, than meets the eye? If I did not have an understanding of what a chair was, would I see a chair at all? Let us imagine rather than being a member of my culture, where coming across chairs was pretty common, I was born in a tribe in deepest Amazon that had never come across chairs before or even Western civilisation for that matter. Let us imagine again, that for some unknown reason, a chair that was being transported by air carrier fell out of the plane and landed in a clearing in my forest that I used every day to hunt. Would I see a chair? No I certainly would not. No doubt I would have an image of a chair on my retina and that image would travel down my optic nerve into my brain, but I would not see a chair, because I have no concept of chair.[2]

How do we pick up concepts of things? Not simply by looking at them, otherwise we’d be right back at the same paradox again. Rather they are part of the conceptual background that makes up our world, and this conceptual background is something we learn in any given culture.[3] Only in this way can I recognise something as something, rather than just a mysterious object that has suddenly appeared in my world, like the chair in the clearing of the jungle. The meaning of the chair, the fact that I can see it as a chair, is given by the context of its use. In this sense, if we were to apply this to our idea of science, scientific practice might define what a fact is and what it is not in advance of the research itself that is meant to explain these facts. In other words theories are not justified by facts, because in reality theories precede facts.

This is exactly the case when we look at the practice of scientists. They don’t just look at things in isolation and then base their theories upon them, rather their theories already tell them where to look and what they should be looking for in order that they know what the relevant facts are. If you like, facts are not just facts. They are not just perceptions; rather they are perceptions plus understanding, and the perception does not come first, and then the understanding second, but they both arrive together. They are part of the same conceptual or if you prefer, phenomenological whole, how we actually see the world within a given context, whether we are scientists or not.[4]

Science already makes us aware of this because when we think of a fact, we don’t just think about a state of affairs but make statements about a state of affairs and these statements only make sense within a community of speakers that understand them. The fact isn’t that they is water on Mars, but that someone says that there is water on Mars, and that someone else can observe them and agree that they really is water on Mars. There would be water on Mars whether there was science or not, or even human beings. It only becomes part of a scientific theory when some says ‘There is water on Mars’, and then someone else gets a telescope and sees that this statement is true.

Rather than saying that science is based on facts, perhaps it would be better to say it is founded upon statements which can be verified through observation.[5] Yet aren’t we faced with the same problems we found with the chair? What we find as relevant in an observation again will be determined by the conceptual background that we inhabit. Chalmers uses an example from the history of science to explain this (Chalmers 1999, p.16). Before scientific revolution of the 17th century, it was taken as given that the earth was stationary. The observable phenomena seem to corroborate this. When I jump upwards, I do not fall back to a different place on the earth, which would seem to the case if it were moving. Of course the reason why this is not the case is inertia. I and the earth are moving in the same direction and thus the same forces are acting upon us (for the same reason a tennis ball that you throw up in the air in a moving car falls back into your hand, because you and the car are moving in the same direction and speed). But because no-one knew the theory of inertia at the time, what was observed did appear to prove the earth was stationary (and I imagine there are some who still believe this for the very same reason). It is the theory that determines the meaning of our observations, rather than the other way around, our observations determining our theory.

Does this mean that science is just subjective and what you see is just what you want to see? Then there would not be any difference between science and religion, for it clearly is the case the religion is subjective.[6] Rather, what is required, to clearly delineate science, is a better definition of observation. For this is precisely what scientist do. Rather, than seeing observation as something private and passive, where I see the chair and the image is projected on my retina, we should see it as public and active. Active, because the observer is always involved in what they see, correcting and changing their observations in relation to their understanding and interpretation, and public because these observations are always shared with others who can interpret the results.

Chalmers gives us two examples of how scientists actually work (Chalmers 1999, pp.21–4). One is Hooke’s pictures of the eye of fly under a microscope. First of all the image of the eye was affected by the very instruments he was using, such that he had to work out how to use a light source that did not affect what he was looking at (candle light through brine, eventually). Secondly, he published what he saw, and told people how he had seen it, so that they too could do the same for themselves and see if they came out with the same results. Secondly, in the case of Galileo, he saw in his telescope the moons of Jupiter, but he needed to prove them to his fellow scientists. For this he had to modify his telescope so that he could gain an accurate measurement of their trajectory to show that they were moving around the planet, and finally when he had obtained these results he published them, so everyone else could test them for their reliability.

What is important in this process is to understand that these observations are not infallible. The difference between science and religion is not that one in infallible and the other isn’t (however you might want to understand this). On the contrary observation is fallible. What we see is determined by how we look and how we look by the conceptual background we find ourselves in. But anyone can come along and show us that this background is incorrect and it is preventing us from seeing something. What is important, however, is how they do this. They do it by pointing to what is observable when we do change our theories, but also that this hypothesis can be tested by others. They do not do so by simply asserting a belief about something. The moon is made out of cheese, for example. So Chalmers can define science in this way: ‘According to the view put forward here, observations suitable for constituting the basis for scientific knowledge are both objective and fallible’ (Chalmers 1999, p.25). This means that objectivity is not the same as absolute truth, but quite the opposite: what is objective can be corrected and changed through observable evidence, whereas what is subjective cannot. A religious belief based on observation would not be a religious belief at all, but an inferior and poor scientific theory, since it would never be falsifiable. This does not mean that religion per se is inferior. This would be the case only if it were doing the same thing as science. The test for faith is not observation, but existence. To be a Christian, for example, is not to belief X, Y, Z, but to act as a Christian. Only when a Christian thinks their faith is supported by objective knowledge do they come in conflict with science, as for example those who people who think that the creation story is a scientific theory in competition with evolution. The irony, of course, is they are dependent on the very scientific method that they despise, for one can only disprove a science by another science.


Ayer, A.J., 2001. Language, truth and logic, London: Penguin.

Chalmers, A.F., 1999. What is this Thing Called Science?, St. Lucia, Qld.: University of Queensland.

Dreyfus, H.L., 1991. Being-in-the-world: a commentary on Heidegger’s Being and time, division I, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Gardner, S., 2006. Kant and the Critique of pure reason, London; New York: Routledge.

Jebens, H., 2004. Cargo, cult, and culture critique, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Uys, J., 2004. The gods must be crazy, Culver City, Calif.: Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment.

[1] You can hear his defence of this book on NPR here,

[2] I am thinking here of what are called ‘cargo cults’, though the evidence of such practices is controversial (Jebens 2004).There is a famous film about a coke bottle that plays with this idea (Uys 2004).

[3] We might ask further whether this conceptual background is even first. Are we not first of all living in a world before we understand it? This is the basis of Dreyfus’s stress on the importance of Heidegger’s philosophy (Dreyfus 1991).

[4] The key issue here is whether this position would lead to relativism. This depends on how one understands the truth and objectivity of science. This will be at the heart of our reading of Kuhn in the second half of this course.

[5] Such a position is what is called logical positivism, whose most vocal defender is A. J. Ayer (Ayer 2001).

[6] This is not a criticism, for what is subjective is not necessarily worse than what is objective, and indeed the objective might have its basis in the subjective, but it all depends on what you mean by the subjective. This was certainly Kant’s view, who placed practical reason (subjective, though in a special way) above theoretical reason (Gardner 2006, pp.319–25). The ultimate end of reason is not knowledge for its own sake, but the Good. We might call this position humanist.

Lecture 1 – Aristotle and the Prime Mover

August 14, 2015

330px-Aristotle_Altemps_Inv8575Aristotle gives us the following definition of God in book Λ of the Metaphysics

We hold then that God is a living being, eternal most good; and therefore life and a continuous eternal existence belong to God; for that is what God is.
(1072b 29-31)

Now this definition would appear at first glance to be wholly appropriate to any monotheistic definition of God. It would seem to be the classical definition of God’s nature that we find in Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Perhaps this should not surprise us, since the source for this classical definition is Greek metaphysics, and Aristotle in particular, first of all through the Arab scholars, and then later through the Jewish and Christian writers. And yet if we read book Λ of the Metaphysics closely we will be able to see that there is a great difference between Aristotle’s proof of God’s existence and the monotheistic experience of God, even though monotheism itself will attempt to use Greek metaphysics to give a rational basis to faith. It is not at all certain, when you look at the details, that monotheism and Greek philosophy quite fit together (and it these differences, however small, that will interest us in this course). You can look at this in two ways: that monotheism is beyond philosophy, or more negatively, if you think religion must have a rational basis, then philosophy cannot in the end give a rational justification to monotheistic religion, and thus religion must be irrational and superstitious.

Book Λ begins with substance, which could be said to be the general topic of the Metaphysics, since, and this is rushing it a bit, substance is Aristotle’s definition of the meaning of being in general: everything that is, is a substance.[1] But the question of substance here, at the beginning of the book, is a particular one: ‘our inquiry is concerned with substance: for it is the principle and causes of substance that we are investigating’ [1069a18-19]. ‘Principle’ can also be translated as ‘origin’. In Greek, this is ἀρχή. Thus, the question of book Λ is a particular question about substance. It is asking about the origin and cause of substance. But what substance are we talking about? Are we talking about a particular substance within the world, as when a child asks a parent where babies come from, or are we asking about the origin and cause of the universe itself, and thus the primary philosophical question as to why there is something rather than nothing; that is to say, the reason why the universe as a whole exists.

What Plato and Aristotle have in common, and which is also shared with other Greek philosophers, and most notably the Pre-Socratics, is a commitment to a rational explanation of the universe. What is the fundamental and basic principle of the existence of the universe? Does the universe just happen by chance or is there a reason for its existence? To argue that it happens by chance would be ultimately to give up any rational explanation of the universe altogether. To say that it exists by chance is not give a reason for the universe, but to give up on reason altogether. Equally if one is committed to a rational explanation of the universe, then mythic or religious stories about the creation of the universe will not do either. For they, precisely in the manner in which they present themselves, are only stories and not rational explanations. This does not mean that there is not a rational core at the heart of these myths, but it is the aim of the philosopher to find out what this nucleus is, and to give it a rational explanation. One way of understanding what Aristotle is doing is that he is pushing this rational explanation to its ultimate conclusion.

Aristotle tells us that we must distinguish between 3 kinds of substance: ‘Now there are three kinds of substance. One is sensible [αἱσθητόϛ] (and maybe either eternal [ἀίδιος] or perishable [φθαρτός] […] Another is immutable [ἀκίνητος]’ [1069a30-34]. We might rephrase the question of Book Λ, then, to what is the relation between these different kinds of substance: perishable, eternal and immutable substance? The first and important distinction that we need to emphasise is that Aristotle’s concept of the universe is not merely a split between the finite, on the one hand, and the infinite on the other, or the sensible and the intelligible; rather the sensible realm is itself split into two. This is why there are three kinds of substance. Again this is one important reason why Aristotle’s universe and the monotheistic one, at least in its orthodox guise, cannot be mapped totally one on to the other. For in the latter, the universe is split into two (or better, the universe itself is distinguished from an ‘extra-universe’ domain that is transcendent), between the finite and the infinite, the former being non-eternal, or perishable to use Aristotle’s terminology, and the latter eternal. That we are faced with 3 substances, here, rather than just 2, already shows us that we not in the monotheistic world view. For Aristotle, the universe as such is eternal, and does not require a first cause to come into existence. Of course for monotheism this would be unthinkable, for this would deny the perfection of God, since there would be something outside independent of God’s existence. The eternal world, the universe, already exists for Aristotle. It is not issue for him to explain its existence. Rather, as we shall see, the problem for him, is how to explain its motion.

To understand why Aristotle believes there is eternal sensible substance we need to be aware of conception of the universe that he had at the time. What is important is that this is a scientific picture of the universe, and not a mythical or straightforwardly religious one. It is Aristotle’s science that requires the supplement of theology, and not his theology, science. In other words, God for Aristotle is a necessary hypothetical deduction of physics, and more specifically astronomy, and not something that one would pray to or make sacrifices for. The latter belongs to the human culture and not to the structure of the universe and would properly be the object of study of history or poetry.

Aristotle’s universe has three levels: at the centre of the universe there is earth, which is the mundane or sublunary world. On earth, there is only perishable substances – plants and animals to use Aristotle’s example. What Aristotle means by perishable sensible substance are those substances that are generated and destroyed in the constant cycle of life and death to which man also belongs. Above this sphere are the heavenly spheres of the sun, moon planets and stars. These substances, unlike the perishable substances are eternal, for they travel in an infinite circular movement without beginning or end. The third and final kind of substance is immutable substance, which unlike both sensible perishable substance, and eternal substance, is not moving (ἀκίνητος means ‘no motion’ and thus ‘unmoved’ or ‘motionless’), and for this reason must be considered as being separate or apart from the other substances.[2]

Aristotle’s universe should be seen as continuum of causality. Here on earth one perishable substance causes another perishable substance to be either generated or destroyed. And yet without the eternal substances the perishable substances would not exist. For without the eternal movement of heavenly spheres there would be no life on Earth (the movement of the sun causes the movement of seasons, which is the origin of the succession of generations here on earth). The relation between the sublunary world and the heavenly sphere is, for Aristotle, the subject matter of physics. What does not properly belong to physics is the other relation between the heavenly spheres and immutable substance. If perishable substance requires eternal substance and the argument is that it must require eternal substance for without it there would be no time, and without time there would be no change, see 1071b5-12), then why does eternal substance require immutable substance? Could they not, for example, move themselves? Why should they require some other motion in order to move?

To answer this question we have to understand how Aristotle understands change (or motion as he calls it) from the Physics. He repeats the argument of the Physics in book Λ of the Metaphysics. Change is change from some subject to some object by means of an agent. The wood changes to ash by means of fire. The agent is that which causes the change or movement. There are for Aristotle four kinds of change: change in substance, quantity, quality and place (see, 1069b8-15). These four kinds of cause can occur also in two different ways: either by art (the carpenter makes the wood into a table), or by nature. In the first case something is caused by something else, and in the latter change is self caused. The other two causes are negations of these two: chance or spontaneity (see, 1070a4-9). The relation between the agent of causality and the subject of causality must be understood, for Aristotle, through the distinction between potentiality and actuality. Thus, the substance that is changed must have the potential to be that substance that it is changed into. In other words, if wood did not have the potential to be ash, it could never actually become ash: ‘Everything is generated from that which is, but is potentially and is not actually’ 1069b19-20. And yet, what is potential can only be actualised by another actuality. There must be something that causes a potentiality within something to change into an actuality, and that cause must in the end be something actual, otherwise we would only have an infinite chain of potentialities and nothing would be actual. We can see, therefore, that Aristotle’s physics, his conception of change or motion, actually necessitates the existence of an ultimate cause, for without it no substance would exist at all, since, nothing, so to speak would be actualised.

How does the same argument, however, fit with the notion of the eternal substances? For are have they not always existed and therefore do not need to be brought into exist? Nonetheless, Aristotle criticises those philosophers (and he names Plato and Leucippius) who simply assert that there is eternal motion without questioning why there is such a motion (1071b32-35). There can only be two answers to this question: either the eternal spheres are self-movers or they move themselves. But even if the eternal spheres move themselves, then they can only do so potentially, for they must be some cause that causes them to actualise this potentiality, and this cause must be a pure actuality, for if it were a potentiality, then the universe would only potential exist, which is impossible.

It is as this precise point that Aristotle’s argument diverges from Plato. As we have already pointed out, what is common to them both is a rational explanation of the origin of the universe. Why does the universe exist rather than nothing? Physics and astronomy show us that the universe has a rational order. So the question then becomes why is the universe rational rather than irrational? If we reply that this is a matter of chance, then we are saying that the rational has its source in the irrational, which would mean, in the end, that the rational is irrational. The question is, then, what is the rational source of the rational. The rational source of the rational is rationality itself. The word that both Plato and Aristotle use to express the rational basis of the rational is νοῦς (nous), which we might translate as ‘reason’ or ‘thinking’.

Of course when we think of thinking we think of someone thinking, as though the universe came into existence becomes someone thought it into existence (this is a particular way of thinking creation, for example, which is absent in Aristotle’s account). This is not how Aristotle thinks of νοῦς. It is the virtue of the universe being rational as such. When we look at the universe we see that if follows regular laws. The sun, stars, and the planets move in regular movements in the sky, and the seasons follow one another here on earth. It is this regularity or continuity that is the meaning of νοῦς. What Aristotle is doing in the Metaphysics is purifying this principle of any anthropomorphism. To think of the rational order of the universe as a self-moving soul is to still picture it in human terms, as though it were imposing order on chaos from the outside. For Aristotle, on the contrary, the universe is immanently ordered.

If we were to think of νοῦς as a self moving, then we have to provide an argument as to why it moved itself. I might move myself towards the kettle to make a cup of tea, but there must be a reason for me to do so (ultimately this reason would have something to do with my body, which is thirsty). A self moving mover, therefore, has the potenitial to move, but to actualise this move, there must be a reason to do so. If we imagine the origin of the universe to be a self moving, then there would have to be an exterior reason why such being would create the universe, in the same way that we need to explain why I moved towards the kettle. For Plato the first mover cannot act without changing itself, but this would involve an infinite regress (what causes this change, and so on). To solve this problem, Aristotle separates movement and activity. There can be a pure activity that does not require the agent to change. It is this pure activity that is the unmoved mover of the origin of the lawful universe. Self movement, for Aristotle, still requires a potential to move and one would still have to supply a reason for the actualisation of this potentiality. A self-mover, then, could not be an ultimate explanation.

Let us summarise Aristotle’s argument before we explain what this pure actuality is. The eternal movement of the heavens is a fact. It is observed and explained by physics and astronomy. But we need to postulate another kind of substance that causes the movement of the heavenly spheres. This third kind of cause must itself be eternal, but also, unlike eternal sensible substance, it must be a pure actuality; that is to say, that it itself must not be actualised by any higher kind of substance. For without postulating this pure actuality we would only have potential movement: ‘There is something which moves without being moved; something eternal which is both substance and actuality’ [1072a24-26].

The only questions that remain is how this immutable substance causes the eternal substance to move, and what a pure actuality might be. This is the proper subject matter of theology in Aristotle’s sense. It is clear that is far more restricted than any monotheistic theology in the classical tradition, which is concerned not merely with a rational explanation of the universe, but also with a belief in a personal God. Even in this restricted theology, however, we shall see that Aristotle’s definition of God, which from the quote that begins this lecture would appear to have similarities with the monotheistic definition of God, is in fact not at all like this monotheistic God. The most important lesson to learn from reading book Λ of the Metaphysics in detail is to see that relation of the immutable substance to sensible substance is not at all like the relation between the Creator the created in monotheism. The unmoved mover is not God in this sense.

The first way to see this is that Aristotle makes it quite clear that the causal relation between the unmoved mover and the heavenly spheres is not an efficient one. The unmoved mover does not cause the heavenly spheres to move in the sense that an architect causes the house to exist. And yet efficient causality is precisely the way that Christian natural theology conceives of the relation between the creator and the created, for unlike Aristotle the universe is eternal. If the unmoved mover does not move the heavenly spheres efficiently, then how does it? Aristotle is very clear about this – in terms of final causality. For it is only in terms of final causality that one can conceive of substance that is unmoved and yet causes motion. The unmoved mover is therefore the object of desire of the soul of the eternal substance: ‘it causes motion as being an object of love, whereas all other things cause motion because they themselves are in motion’ 1072b3-4. Desire itself, for Aristotle, is subordinate to thought, for without being able to think something as desirable then one would not be able to desire it – desire, as Gerson rightly explains, is a ‘cognitive activity’.[3] Thought itself is moved by the intelligible, therefore the ultimate cause must be pure intelligibility.

What is this prime mover? Since it is actuality without any potentiality it must be identified with the highest kind of actuality that is thinking. We need to be very careful here. God for Aristotle does not think thoughts, for this thought are potentialities, for one could always think something else. God must think that which is most divine and that which does not change and that is pure intelligibility, or mind God is mind thinking itself thinking, which is in the end Aristotle’s definition of God: ‘thinking thinking thinking’ (ἔστιν ἡ νόησις νοήσεως νόησις) 1074b35.

[1] For a very schematic account of Aristotle’s metaphysics, see our lecture ‘Aristotle’.

[2] Because Aristotle rejects Plato’s account of separation (that the form of gold exist separately from instances of gold) does not mean that he rejects all separation. The heavenly spheres are separate from sublunary world, as the immaterial is from the material. See, Stephen Menn, ‘Aristotle and Plato on God as Nous and as the Good’, The Review of Metaphysics, 45 (1992), 543–73.

[3] Lloyd P Gerson, God and Greek Philosophy: Studies in the Early History of Natural Theology (London; New York: Routledge, 1990), p. 124.

Heidegger and the Question of Technology – Lecture 3

April 9, 2015

Heidegger_4_(1960)_croppedRight at the end of The Dialogue of the Two Chief World Systems, Galileo makes a distinction between the ‘sensible world’ and ‘a world on paper’(Galilei & Finocchiaro 2008, p.201). He is arguing that the true authority for our scientific theories is not what is written in books but what we can observe with our senses. I already implied at the end of the lecture on Galileo that we should treat this opposition with a little bit of suspicion since he might be guilty of rhetorical exaggeration. First of all, it is clearly not the case that Aristotle, or those who followed him did not use their senses, but equally, Copernicus’s idea hypothesis of heliocentrism was precisely that, and not something that one would come to simply by using one’s senses. Indeed, Descartes is being more honest than Galileo in this regard. He freely admits that the theory of nature, which is at the heart of the new science, that nature is uniform, homogenous, material quantity that is calculable mathematically, and what we see is a secondary phenomenon, cannot be proved by our senses. The opposite is the case. The basic principles of science are what we approach nature with rather than derived from experience. For Descartes, theories do not follow facts, rather facts follow theories.

For Descartes ultimately, science, or the ideas of science, find their culmination in the existence of God. Without the absolute power of God nothing would exist, but equally the beneficence of God guarantees that the most coherent conception of nature (which for Descartes are precisely the laws of the new science and the concept of nature as an homogenous material quantity) must be true of nature itself, despite the fact that I can never experience this ultimate reality.

What happens, however, once we give up this divine assurance? Heidegger’s answer is that Descartes, and Galileo’s, theory of nature is in fact a projection upon nature. We like to think that science describes nature as it appears, but in fact it already pictures nature in a certain way so that it can become an object for science. In other words, there is a determinate way that nature is experience in science, which would be different from how nature appears in art, for example, or when I go for a walk in the wood. Why do we take the scientific model of nature to be the only true account of nature? Perhaps because we are unaware of the historical basis of science or take it to be the natural or common sense way of viewing the world, though if we investigate it in any detail would we see that it is anything but natural in this sense.

What the idea of God hides, then, is that science is the mathematical projection of nature. Galileo conceals this by saying that what science describes is ordinary sensible nature. Descartes knows this is not true, since modern science explains nature through unobservable phenomena, but he conceals the mathematical projection of nature in a different way, by claiming, through the idea of God, that this is what nature is really, even though we cannot experience it.

The key difference between modern and ancient science is not that one is based on experience and experiment and the other is not (as Galileo polemically presents it), but that modern science is mathematical. Numbers are not found in things, nor are things numbers. What is mathematical has to be brought to nature, but for nature to be brought under mathematics it already has to be understood in a certain way. Mathematics provides the certainty (what Descartes thinks of as self-evident truths), but we must already think of nature as something that one could be certain about in the first place.

To think of nature as something certain is to think of it as homogenous. It is because Descartes already conceives of nature as extension (the corpuscular theory of matter) that it is mathematical. It is not because it is mathematical that he thinks of it as extension. Descartes claims that this idea has its validity in the idea of God. Heidegger would argue that this theory of nature is a projection, however useful it might be, of the scientist himself. This does not mean that what science describes is not real, as though its objects were ghosts, but that science never relates to nature empty handed. It only encounters reality within certain limitations. As we shall see when we look at the Question Concerning Technology later on, science sets up the object in advance.

This is why Heidegger will claim that the experiment is crucial to understanding modern science. Again this does not mean that there were no experiments before modern science, but that experiment was not crucial. What is important about the experiment is that it always sets nature up in a limited way. It constrains nature within the limits of the hypothesis that the experiment is meant to test. This is why it cannot be true, even when Galileo said it, that modern science is based simply on observation and experience, for the experiment precisely bypasses our ordinary perception of the world. It is clear, therefore, that the story of Galileo and the tower could only have been a myth. For in terms of the real world, which is not limited by the abstraction of the experiment, observing two balls hitting the ground at the same time is nearly impossible. What Galileo in fact did was, to demonstrate that a heavier object would not fall faster than a lighter one, was to release different balls from a ramp.

To say that the experiment sets up nature in a determinate manner, does not mean that the phenomena observed (the balls accelerating down the ramp) are false, or the theory of free fall is a fiction, but that nature here is experienced in a limited manner. The mistake is to think that the scientific explanation is a description of nature as it is. Heidegger would argue that this is not a scientific explanation but a metaphysical one, and this is why Descartes has to justify it with the existence of God. Once we give up such an idea, then we can see what science must be, which is a projection.

There is then no such as disinterested observation. This is not a criticism of science as being unscientific. Science is scientific because it is already an interested observation. It observes nature through a hypothesis which it then tests through an experiment. This relation between interested observation and experiment, however, is dependent on viewing nature as a whole as something calculable. This is what is common between Galileo, Newton, and Einstein, even though they have very different theories of nature.[1] Science already projects nature as quantifiable and for this reason it measures it. Experiments are only possible as tests of hypothesis because we already assume that nature is something that is measurable. The scientist shrinks the world so that it fits the experiment. But the world already is before we understand it as something measurable. The colour of the leaf already is before it is a wave of light that can be quantified. This does not mean that the quantity is not real for Heidegger, but he will ask us to consider whether the being of the leaf is reducible only to this quantification.

What science cannot do is get behind its own projection. If it were to do so, then it would cease being scientific. A scientist does not ask about the reality of the objects that it considers unless the science itself comes into crisis. I must accept the theoretical reality of the objects I study in order to test the hypothesis. If I were to do so, then I would never begin. Descartes, therefore, has take it for granted that the nature really is nothing but matter in motion, even though no such thing can be observed. What is interesting, historically speaking, is that unlike Galileo, perhaps because he is more philosophical, the projective nature of this theory is more visible to us because of the obvious artifice of the existence of God. However, generally speaking, all science is projection, and more so, when it claims just to be describing things as they really are. Just as much as Descartes metaphysical assumptions predetermine what nature is for him, then so too does the most extreme empiricist.

Although Heidegger is not criticising science as such, since modern science can only function as the limitation of nature by the experiment, what does worry him is the view that science is the only true explanation of anything that we experience and that our world is the very same as the representation of nature in science. Today, like the ancients would have looked for answers philosophy, or the medieval in religion, we now think that all answers are to be found in science. Science is now the ‘theory of everything’, and this everything also includes us.

Why does Heidegger think that such a conception of science, which has the same status as a religion, has hidden dangers? This is because concomitant with the view that nature is only something that is calculable or measurable is the conviction that it is something to be used up by us. Science, then, is not free of political and ethical interests in the broadest sense. This is what Heidegger means when he says that modern science and the essence of technology are inseparable.

The essence of technology and technological things are not the same, just as the tree and the essence of the tree are not the same, otherwise every tree would be identical to a particular tree. What we want to capture is the generality of the tree (Heidegger 1977). When we ask about the essence of something, then we are asking what it means to be that thing that it is. What then is general to technology. Heidegger says that we can think of technology in two ways: as a means to an end and as a human activity. Thus I use a mobile phone to text someone, and texting is something that human beings do. This Heidegger says is an instrumental way of thinking about technology and he does not disagree with this definition. He does not think, however, that it goes far enough. We use something to bring something else about. So we use a kettle to boil water and so on. At heart of instrumentality, therefore, is causality.

What has the history of philosophy to tell us about causality? The ancient, and the medieval, thought of causality in terms of 4 kinds of causality: material, formal, end, and, efficiency. The material cause of something is the matter from which it made, the formal cause of something is its design or plan, the end or telos, is the purpose or function of something, and finally the efficient cause is what brings it about. To explain the cause of something is to explain why something exists. Heidegger uses the example of the silver chalice. The material cause would be the silver it is made from, the formal cause would be the design the craftsman or woman works with, the end or telos, would be its function in some kind of ritual, and the efficient cause would be the work of the person themselves who hammers the metal and heats the fire. But even here, Heidegger suggests, we haven’t got to the deepest level, because why is their causality at all and why only four causes? The ancients and the medieval did not think of causality in the way we did as simply bringing something about, as the match brings about the fire, but being responsible for something. In each case the silver chalice is indebted to the causes. Without these 4 causes the silver chalice would not exist at all.

What is meant by responsibility here, Heidegger says, should not be thought of in the modern way, in terms of morality or ethics, as when we say someone is guilty of crime. The four causes are responsible because they make the silver chalice present. Without them it would not lie there before us, and we would not be able to hold it in our hands. Another way that Heidegger describes this is as ‘occasioning’. The four cause are the occasion of the chalice to be at all.

The way in which ancient philosophy through of this making present was through poiesis (where the English poetry comes from). It is not just poetry or handicraft that brings things into existence, but nature itself. Nature is the occasioning of things, as the apple tree is the occasion of the apple blossom. The craftswoman or man brings forth the silver chalice by making it present, as the apple tree brings forth the blossom by making it present. Something is made present that did not exist before. This making present Heidegger calls revelation or unconcealment, and is how the ancients experience truth.

The essence of technology is also a form of revealing or unconcealment, but it reveals nature in a very different way than poiesis. What Heidegger is emphasising is before technology is instrumental it revelatory. It reveals nature in a certain and determinate way. Rather than poiesis it is the ‘challenging forth of nature’ in which nature is something we use up as a store of energy. Such a way of revealing nature, Heidegger argues, is already hidden in the projection of modern science, which also only views nature as energy. When nature is viewed in this way it becomes a ‘standing reserve’. The river is no longer a course that flows through a valley, but a energy reserve to be used by hydroelectricity. The wood is only experience as a resource to produce cellulose or other industrial products. In the same way, human beings themselves are only seen as ‘standing reserves’ to be used up, such that nowadays it is quite common to hear people talking about human resources, as though there were nothing extraordinary about this.

The particular way in which nature reveals itself to us as something that we determine as standing reserve, Heidegger calls ‘enframing’ (Gestell). He is using this word in an original way. Normally, this word just means a ‘frame’, like in a picture frame. It sounds strange to use an ordinary word in this way, but no stranger than when Plato first used the word ‘idea’, which now sounds completely normal to us. What he means by ‘enframing’ is that nature as a totality must already be experienced by us in a certain way such that we experience both what we encounter in the world, and ourselves, as nothing but standing reserves. In the enframing, nature is reduced to calculation and manipulability. We can see therefore that modern science is at the heart of this process, and why we necessarily think, just as the medieval thought that everything was to be found in God, that science can answer every question. This does not mean that science creates the world around us. It means that since we only experience nature as calculable and manipulable, that science becomes the dominate world picture. This is not because a committee of scientists have decided that we should think like this, but this is generally how we experience nature as such, just as the medieval experienced everything through God, and no more decided this, than we decided our epoch.

Does not mean that Heidegger is anti-science? I think this would be a complete misunderstanding of his argument. Heidegger does not think that one can replace science by philosophy or another way of thinking (religion or spirituality or whatever way you might want to characterise it). On the contrary science only works because it limits nature to a sharply defined model that can be tested by an experiment. Heidegger’s worry is when we confuse this necessary limitation with the totality of nature and even more so when we think of ourselves in this way. But what is true of science is also true of religion in the medieval age or philosophy in the ancient one. What such an inflation of science conceals (that science describes nature as it is), is the political and ethical dimension of scientific and technological world view, where nature becomes only something that is to be consumed and used up. In the age of climate change and ecological catastrophes we might wonder whether such a relation hides a danger we have failed to foresee.


Galilei, G. & Finocchiaro, M.A., 2008. The essential Galileo, Indianapolis, Ind.: Hackett Pub. Co.

Heidegger, M., 1977. The question concerning technology, and other essays, New York: Harper & Row.

[1] This is the great difference between Heidegger and Kuhn. Even though like Kuhn, Heidegger will also differentiate Aristotelian and Newtonian conceptions of reality (he does not think quantum physics is a decisive difference), nonetheless between these different epochs is the same principle of the intelligibility and calculability of nature.

Descartes and the New Metaphysics – Lecture 2

March 22, 2015

800px-Frans_Hals_-_Portret_van_René_DescartesIf Galileo is the name that stands for the emergence of a new science and a new way of looking at the world, then Descartes is the one who grounds it in a new metaphysics.[1] For the scientist, who is dismissive of the need for philosophy, since for her it is only important if her model works, this is of no importance, but in the history of philosophy, he institutes a whole new way of thinking that all subsequent philosophy has to answer to.

One of the difficulties of reading Descartes, at least if you don’t read him in too much detail, and jump over the things he says that seem anachronistic, their main ideas have become such a part of our philosophical culture, indeed our culture as a whole (who has not heard of the famous cogito ego sum), that we can just read him without really making any attempt to understand. Moreover, the apparent ease of our interpretation means we can even think that we can easily dismiss these arguments, because everyone knows them and they hardly require any thought whatsoever. This is especially the case when we come to his famous proof of the existence of God, which we can dismiss with great ease if we are not aware of what problem it answers. Indeed the problem is more interesting than the question.

The simplicity of this reading has more to do with our ignorance, however, rather than our deep understanding. It is because we are unaware of the context of Descartes’ argument, why he wrote what he did, and especially their revolutionary nature, that we can easily be misled as to their depth and originality. The most important element of this context is the rise of the new sciences in the 16th and 17th century. Before he saw himself as a philosopher, Descartes viewed himself (if these different functions were really as separable to him and his contemporaries, as they might be to us), as a scientist and a mathematician. He wrote a philosophy as a defence of the new science, and the importance of the mathematical method, rather than just a work of philosophy in itself.

If we are going to understand how revolutionary the new science was, and why Descartes believed it required a different metaphysics to support it, then we have to recognise, if however succinctly and briefly, that metaphysics it rejected, which was Aristotelianism. Aristotle’s understanding of nature was the dominant picture of reality. The problem of dislodging this picture was not just that the new science rejected it, but that its hold on people’s imaginations was so prevalent and dominant. This is because Aristotle’s philosophy is the philosophy of common sense. It describes what we see around us, and thus to reject it is to reject everything we know around us. We can see why Descartes’ method is sceptical, because before he can reinstitute the new science on a secure ground, he must first of all get us to reject what we ordinarily take to be knowledge of the world. It is not enough to reform our current views; we have to reject them completely.

Such a revolutionary change, one we are still living with, is obvious in the famous rejection of the geostatic universe for a heliocentric one, but it is perhaps a more ordinary example that might make it clearer for us exactly what is at stake here. Let us compare, therefore, an Aristotelian account of vision from a Cartesian one (Hatfield 2014, pp.291–4). We today might be very blasé about Descartes’ mechanical explanation of colour, because we take for granted the physiological explanation of colour (colour is nothing but the interaction of the spectrum of light with the retina), but it would have sounded strange to his contemporaries. In the Aristotelian conception of sensation, my perception of external objects is caused by the real qualities of those objects. Thus if I see a red rose then my perception of ‘red’ is caused by the red qualities of that rose. The red exists in the rose, travels to my eye, and thereby causes my sensation of red. As we can see, this seems to be a very common sense view of what happens when we see things (and there are probably people who still think that this is what it means to physically ‘see’ the colour red).

For Descartes, on the contrary, there are no ‘red’ things as such. On the contrary, for Descartes, nature is nothing but matter in motion. Matter is corpuscular (infinitely divisible particles). The quality of red in the object, therefore, and its interaction with the eye, can be explained by the shape, size and motion of these particles. Colour is caused by the surface of the object I am looking at, which refracts light particles that interact with the eye. Descartes is not denying that we see red, but that red cannot be explained by a real quality called red. Rather the phenomenon ‘red’ requires a deeper explanation that can only be provided scientifically through the kind of mechanical model that Descartes describes

Although there are specific problems with Descartes’ explanation of colour, which will wait for the modern developments in optics, we can see that we are in two totally different scientific worlds. Fundamentally for Aristotle, everything that exists is explained through form and matter. It is the form of something that explains what it is. Thus to understand what it a tree is one has to understand the ‘form’ tree. If we are looking at an oak tree, then the form would be contained in the acorn. This is true, just as much for animate as well as inanimate things. So to explain the sun, we also have to understand the form of the sun, as well as its material existence (which for Aristotle was the four elements, plus the mysterious fifth one, aether). For Descartes, there is only a material explanation of nature. If one wants to understand the sun, then one needs to understand the nuclear fusion of hydrogen to helium. Moreover, these material laws are the same for all objects in nature and the whole of nature itself. The explanation of our sun would be the same as for all suns in the universe, and these explanations would be would be the same for everything that exists (that is, matter in motion, which can be mathematical defined).

The different physics of Aristotle and Descartes means that they have completely different metaphysics. The basis of the universe for Aristotle is individual substances. Because matter is not sufficient to explain what it is to be something, there cannot be a material explanation of nature. Each thing is an individual substance, which is the specific conjunction of form and matter, whether we are speaking of a tree or animal, me or you, the sun and the other stars. For Descartes, there is only one thing that exists and that is matter in motion, and every individual thing we see is only a property or a mode of this one material substance. Things differ only because matter differs (there is a difference is shape, size and motion of particles), not because there is an extrinsic difference between them. We can see in Aristotle’s metaphysics, that we need an explanation for each thing, whereas for Descartes, we only need a few simple laws of motion (three), in order to explain everything that we see, and that these simple laws of motion, since they have to only to do with shape, size and motion, can be explained quantitatively (that is mathematically) other than qualitatively in the Aristotelian system.

Only now with this scientific background, can we really begin to understand the Meditations. Descartes’ scepticism, at the beginning, then, is not merely an amusing thought experiment, which will later become the plot of the film Matrix, but presupposes the fundamental break that modern science has taken with the common sense perception of the world. For the hypothesis that nature is matter in motion is precisely that a hypothesis, which one can quite literally not see, and thus what I see cannot itself be true. Thus, the task for Descartes is not to destroy our knowledge of the world, but to rebuild it, but where the foundations will be more secure, no longer resting on our fallible senses, but reliable understanding and reason. Scepticism is not employed for its own sake, or even to make philosophy impossible, but on the contrary, to make our knowledge of the world even more certain, by showing that sceptical arguments can be defeated if our metaphysics is robust enough.

It is for this reason why Descartes takes his doubt much further than classical scepticism. We should not only doubt our senses, for we know that they tell us lies about the world (is that pencil really bent that I see in the glass of water), but also the world of mathematics and even the status of reality itself. How do I know that this is not all a dream, since my dreams have been as vivid as my perception of the world right now, and why it is not possible that a malicious demon hasn’t put into my head the idea that 4+4 = 8, when it really is 9?. Now all these sound a bit excessive if we don’t know the scientific context of these doubts. If the truth of reality is in fact mathematical, then the question Descartes is really asking is how I know that this mathematical reality is real, when there is nothing in my ordinary experience that would verify it.

If I can doubt everything in reality, even that my mathematical ideas are a true representation of what is real, then there is one thing, Descartes argues, that I cannot doubt, and that is I am thinking. For even if I doubt everything, there is one thing I cannot doubt and that is in the very act of doubting. What is important at this point in Descartes’ argument is not to confuse the status of the ‘I’ in the statement ‘I think therefore I am’. This I is not me as physical being. The ‘I’ that stands before you now, the ‘I’ that is writing this lecture on the computer. My physical reality is just as doubtful as the reality of the rest of physical nature. Also this ‘I’ only exists in the very moment of thinking. Only in the very act of thinking can the ‘I’ be said to exist, because it is self-refuting to argue otherwise. Even if I say, ‘I do not exist’, it is I who am thinking this, and so must exist in the moment I think it.

Though the cogito is very limited in one sense, it also includes a lot more than one might first assume. First of all Descartes includes all acts of consciousness, such remembering, desires, and most importantly for us, perceiving. Thus when I desire something, I exist in the moment of desiring, when I remember something I exist in the moment of remembering it, and when I perceive something, I exist in the moment of perceiving it. Of course, following from radical doubt, I don’t know whether what I perceive is the same as what is in reality (it really could be all a dream, or mathematical code as in the film Matrix), but I cannot doubt that I am perceiving the chair. Secondly, and this is going to be very important when we come to look at the wax, the content of what I think, desire, remember and perceive is also real Again, it is not real, as in ‘out there’, but real in my mind. So when, I am thinking, remembering, desiring, perceiving a chair, I really am thinking, remember, desiring, perceiving a chair, even though I don’t know whether a chair really exists.

What is going here, which is very important for understanding Descartes’ metaphysics, is that he is totally changing our idea of truth. Normally when we think of truth (and it should not surprise us, when we think of what we said about science above, that this too has a long Aristotelian heritage), we think of it as adequation. That is, we think that truth is about how we speak about the external world. When I say to you ‘There is chair’, you take this statement to be true, because there is a chair in the real world that corresponds to the statement. Now Descartes’ cannot appeal to this notion of truth, because at the moment of the status of the real world has been bracketed (I don’t know whether the world is true or not). He therefore replaces the truth as adequation, with truth as coherence. An idea is true because it is clear and distinct in my mind. The cogito is therefore a measure of what it is to be true since is self-evident that to have a thought there must be an ‘I’ that thinks it. But we can also say that the idea of triangle as a three sided figure is true, whereas the idea of square circle is not. Not because there are no square circle in the world, but because the idea itself does not make sense, since it is incoherent.

When we come to the example of the wax in the third mediation, therefore, we can become completely confused if we think Descartes is talking about the external perception of the wax, because this is precisely what he has given up (we don’t know what the real wax is, because we don’t even know if reality is real). What he is describing is our idea of the wax, how the wax appears to us, even if we don’t whether the wax is real or not. His first description, then, is how the idea of wax appears to us when we take the wax as something we perceive, but perception means here, perception as an action of thought (I am thinking about how the wax is perceived by me), and not perception as the sensation of an external object that I take to exist really outside of me and which effects my sense and which I then think of as was (our example of real qualities and the red flower above). If we were to take that Descartes was doing the latter, then we would be confusing him with Aristotelian account of perception.

What then do I think I perceive when I think that the idea of wax is sensation? I have a list of properties that describe the wax. It smells of flowers; it tastes of honey; it makes a sound when you tap it; it is hard and cold to the touch; and it is white and the shape of a cube. Doesn’t this, then, tell us exactly what the wax is. Why would we need to know anymore? We remember, though that Descartes is sitting in a warm room (it tells us at the beginning of the Meditations). With the heat of the room, all the properties of the wax change: there is no fragrance of flowers; no sweetness of honey; no sound when a hit it; it is not hard and cold; it is no longer white and shaped like a cup. How, therefore, can the sense tell us what the wax is, since now it is completely change. The idea of the wax under the thought of perception is a completely confused idea. However, even though I know the wax has completely changed, it is nonetheless the same piece of wax that remained the same throughout this transformation. What is this wax? It can’t be the list of properties of the sensation because these are completely different. It must be what remains when we strip away all these properties that have changed in our idea of the wax itself. What is it that remains? It is the idea of the body in general as ‘something extended, flexible and changeable’. [AT VII, 30] Although I cannot experience this body, since it would have innumerable shapes that I cannot imagine, I nonetheless can think it, and the idea of this body is less confused and incoherent understanding of the wax in general, than what is present by the idea of sensation. Going back to Descartes’ definition of truth, it is, therefore more true.

At this point we haven’t got outside the cogito itself. I can say that the idea of extension as the correct understanding of bodies, rather than their real qualities, might make more sense, but it does not mean that the what the wax is in the real world is anything like that at all. At this stage, extension (that matter is extended in three dimensions) as the explanation of all the phenomena we see, including the secondary phenomena of the senses, is merely a hypothesis. To prove that nature in itself is like that, we need to get outside of our minds. But how are going to do that? Through the proof of the existence of God, because the idea of God is a very strange idea, and necessitates the actual existence of the content of the idea, in the way that no other idea I have does.

Descartes is not the first philosopher to use the ontological proof for the existence of God, but it does have a particular form in his philosophy, so it is worth going into it in a little more detail. Also, we need to remember what kind of work the proof is doing. Descartes is not proving the existence of God because he lacks faith. He already believes in God. He does not need a proof. We are speaking here of a philosophical concept of God and not a religious one (although as we shall see with Spinoza’s criticism of Descartes, he might sneak a theological notion within this concept). The concept of God is solving a philosophical problem for Descartes, how do we know that are scientific hypothesis that we cannot see with our senses, is actually telling us the truth about the world, and not a crisis of faith.

One of the problems for the modern reader following Descartes proof is that he uses Scholastic terminology that they might not know.[2] Let us briefly explain this jargon before we look at the argument itself. When it comes to ideas in our minds, Descartes makes three important distinctions: objective reality, formal reality and eminent reality. The objective idea of the triangle is the idea of the triangle insofar as it represents a thing. The objective reality is not the thing represented, but the representation. One of the best ways to think of this is in terms of the operation of an image, though we should be careful here not thinking that Descartes thought that all representation were images. Thus when we say that a picture is a picture of something we can distinguish between what the picture is and what the picture represents. In the case of a picture of a tree for example, we can distinguish between the picture and the tree that is represented in the picture.

What is much more difficult is the idea of formal reality in Descartes. It is much more difficult because Descartes himself seems to be confused about it. We could interpret formal reality to be the actual existence of the thing that is represented in the idea. But this would admit the existence of external things, whereas we are only talking about the nature of ideas. Formal reality is the part of the definition of the idea and not the description of a thing. Many misunderstandings of Descartes have to do with confusing the formal reality of the idea with the reality of a thing. On the contrary, the formal reality of the idea describes the status of the idea itself. Whatever idea we speak of and whatever this idea might represent, the idea itself exists. Again if we go back to our picture example, being mindful that ideas are not pictures for Descartes, so that this is only an analogy, then we can make a distinction between the picture, on the one hand, and what the picture represents on the other. Now the picture, on this analogy, is the formal idea. That is to say idea of the tree itself, and not the tree that is represented in the idea.

Now for Descartes ideas themselves and not just what they represent in the idea, have degrees of reality. The best way to understand what Descartes means by ‘degrees of reality’ here is degree of perfection, otherwise again you are going to get confused and think that he is speaking about real external things. Now for Descartes it is possible to say that some ideas, formally speaking are more perfect than other’s. The idea itself is more perfect and not just what is represented in the idea (though it is true to say that when we are speaking about perfection these two are connected).. It is the idea itself that is more perfect, that is to say its formal reality, and not just what is represented in the idea, that is to say its objective reality. The idea of God does not just have more objective reality than the idea of frog; rather it has more formal reality than any other idea (Deleuze 1978). The idea of God, therefore, for Descartes, has eminent reality. Of course the immediate question we need to ask is why is the idea of God more perfect than any other idea? But before we get to this question we need to think about how Descartes explains the relation between objective and formal reality, for this is the basis of the proof of the existence of God

This relation is essentially causal for Descartes. That is to say that the formal idea is the cause of the objective idea. We might put it this way. In the absence of the idea of the frog, they would be no ‘frog’ as an object of the idea. This means for Descartes that the idea of the frog, it formal reality, is the cause of the objective reality of the frog. It is not just the causality of ideas that we need to be aware of, but also, as we have already seen, that reality means for Descartes ‘degrees of perfection’. The proof for the existence of God is a combination of causality and perfection. Thus the formal reality not only causes the objective reality to exist, but also the degree of perfection that this idea has. Descartes regards it as a fundamental axiom that more cannot come from less. If the formal reality is the cause of the objective reality, then there must be as much reality in the formal reality as there is in the objective reality. We need to be very careful that we are speaking about ideas and not objects, and the best way to think about it is again in terms of a picture. Descartes’ argument is that a picture will have more reality than any other one the more reality that the object of the picture has. Thus to use Bernard William’s example: a picture of a pile of sticks will have less reality than a picture of a complex machine, precisely because the complex machine, as an objective reality, has more reality than a pile of sticks (Williams 2005, p.124). The best way to think of the relation between objective and formal relations, when it comes causality and perfection, is therefore backwards. From the complexity of the object of thought we go back to the complexity of the idea which is the origin of this thought.

The question, then, is how I get from this relation between formal and objective reality of ideas to the proof of the existence of God. Again we need to remember that this is a causal relation for Descartes. The idea must have as much reality, perfection or complexity, as the object that it represents. In Descartes language, it contains formally as much reality as the object contains objectively. But this does not present it having more reality than the object it represents. In this instance, Descartes says it contains eminently what the object of thought only contains formally. But how does this further distinction get us any closer to the idea of God? Descartes asks whether it is possible that there is one idea that contains formally what I cannot be the cause of objectively; that is to say, whether there is an idea whose objectively reality, whose object of thought cannot have its origin in me.

Thus if I look at all the content of my ideas, I can see that they can all have their origin in me, but the objective reality of the formal idea of God cannot. Why is that? What is it about the idea of God that means that its objective reality cannot be inside of me and that it must exist outside of me? It is because the very formal idea of God, the definition of God, contains an objective reality that I could not be the cause of because I know that I myself am an imperfect being. We have already agreed that what has less perfection cannot be the cause of something that has more perfection. I could be, Descartes argues, the cause of all my other ideas, since objectively they contain nothing more than I contain formally, but I cannot be the origin of the content of the formal idea of God, the objective reality of God, since this objective reality contains more perfection than I do. That is to say my picture of God is less than the objective reality of the idea, and thus could not be its cause. This idea must be caused by something that existed outside of me, and it must contain formally speaking as much reality as the objective reality of the idea of God. Only God could be the cause of the idea of God.

So the idea of God necessarily proves that God exists and we have a little chink in the armour of the cogito. There is one thing I know that exist outside of my idea of it, and that is God. But why would that solve my problem with the wax. Why would the existence of God demonstrate that my idea of wax must be what the wax is in nature? It is the existence of God that guarantees the existence of external objects, and also that my idea of these objects correspond to the true nature of external objects. What I can clearly and distinctly perceive is true, but without God this truth would not be sufficient, since although I am perceiving this truth in my mind, there might be nothing like it in the outside world. If I can prove that God exists, then it follows that everything depends upon him, since God is the only perfection, and such a God could not deceive me. It follows, therefore, what I clearly and distinctly perceive, and I can remember having done so, must be actually true.

The success of Descartes’ metaphysical project rests on the existence of God. It would not surprise many readers that no many philosophers, even immediately so, were convinced by it. Cartesian science itself was pretty much left behind with the success of Newton (though he was clearly influenced by Descartes). However, I want to refer to one important critique of Descartes, which is Spinoza. He was as rationalist as Descartes (and thus his critique is very different from the empiricists and Kant who come later), but his argument with Descartes is that he did not take his ideas seriously enough. In other words, Spinoza wanted to out Descartes Descartes.

Spinoza issue’s with Descartes is that he smuggles a theological conception of God into his philosophical idea of God, and that is the idea of creation. There are in fact three substances in Descartes: the two finite substances, mind and matter, and the infinite substance God. This mirrors the theological distinction in the idea of creation of the difference between transcendence and immanence. Now the transcendent God is beyond the comprehension of the finite mind (this is the turning point of the ontological proof for Descartes, I know that God exists, but I don’t know what God is, and God in his absolute power could have created a world in which triangles have 4 sides and 2+2=5). For Spinoza this is absurd. If there were a difference between an infinite God and a finite world, then God would not be infinite, since God would lack something; that is the finite world that is different from him. Also God could not be governed by different laws (as though God were a capricious tyrant), because this would mean that laws that came from God could have been different, but this too would mean that God would lack something, which would be the laws that he did not create. If God is infinite, and we start with this infinite, then the idea of transcendent wilful God that is still at the heart of Descartes’ project (which Spinoza will explain is only anthropomorphic idea of God), must be a fiction. ‘God,’ Spinoza writes, is the immanent, not the transitive, cause of all things’ (1P18).

Rather than explaining attributes in relation to infinite substance, Descartes has explained substance in relation to attributes, and this is why he has ended up with three substances, rather than one unique substance, God, whose essence must infinite attributes (not just two) that express themselves through infinitely many things and ideas. We must begin, Spinoza is saying, with the infinite universe and explain are place within it, rather than projecting an image of ourselves onto this infinite universe.


Ariew, R., 1986. Descartes as Critic of Galileo’s Scientific Methodology. Synthese, 67(1), pp.77–90.

Deleuze, G., 1978. Les Cours de Gilles Deleuze. Sur Spinoza. Available at: [Accessed October 9, 2014].

Hatfield, G.C., 2014. The Routledge guidebook to Descartes’ Meditations,

Williams, B., 2005. Descartes: The Project of Pure Enquiry, Psychology Press.

[1] He believed that although Galileo was to be admired, he tended to rush over the subject matter and not explain sufficiently. The purpose of Descartes’ project was to set philosophy on firm principles and work from these in a systematic way (Ariew 1986).

[2] This shows that Descartes was not as far from the Scholastics as some have presented him, and indeed, how he sometimes presents himself.

Galileo and the Science of Nature – Lecture 1

March 6, 2015

GalileoWe are interested in science as part of intellectual history. We are not, therefore, concerned whether Galileo’s theories are correct or not in terms of the scientific conception of truth, however mistrustful we might be of such a way of thinking about truth. Nor do we need do pay attention to the specifics of Galileo’s theories, as though we were studying physics, though does not mean that details of his interpretations of nature will be of no concern at all. Rather, what matters to us is how, as non-scientists, our conception of the world has completely changed because of Galileo’s achievements. We live in a completely different world view because of the rise of experimental science in the 16th and 17th centuries, and this has profoundly altered the way we view nature. Galileo’s name, therefore, marks an epochal change in our history, and the present cannot be understood without it.

Before, however, we discuss what it is that is so important about Galileo, let us first say a few things about ‘intellectual history’ or the ‘history of ideas’, which we began to talk about last week. First of all, and perhaps most importantly, what do we mean by history? The fundamental basis of history must be time, for if we were not temporal beings; that is, had a sense of our own past, present and future, then our history as such would not have a meaning for us. Thus, we can talk about this history of rocks, but it unclear that rocks have a history for themselves. Likewise, we can talk about the history of lions, but they themselves do not have their own history.

The time of history is not the same as clock time, though it can be measured by clock time (we say that such and such an historical event happened at such a date and such a time), because it is our own experience of time that is the basis of clock time, and not clock time the basis of our experience of time. Human beings were already historical, have a sense of their own lives and death, and their place in the sweep of generations, long before clock time became the representation of lived time. If we first of all did not live in time, then there would be no calendars and clocks to measure it.

What do we mean by the past of history? It cannot mean just what once happened in the present and now has disappeared into past only to be retrieved in the present like a fish pulled out of the river gasping for air on the bank. In some sense, isn’t the past ahead of us rather than in front of us? Heidegger in Being and Time speaks of there being two meanings of history (1962, pp.424–55). One is the positivism of the past, which marches under the banner of the words of the famous German historian Ranke, who raised the study of history to a proper science, wie es eigentlich gewesen (the past as it actually was). The other, far more difficult to understand, and the sense of history that Heidegger will argue for, is the past as the possibility of the future. He asks what makes something preserved in a museum historical. We are not just speaking of statues and artefacts, but all the kinds of things the historian works with: letters, diaries, memoirs, eye witness accounts, government archives, treaties, and so on. For the positivist, these are the facts of history, and what makes history more than fables and myths. Heidegger does not dispute the reality of these documents nor their importance to the scientific study of history, but he asks a more difficult question: what is the ‘pastness’ of the past? Why, when I hold them in my hand, do I say they belong to the past. What is the status of these past artefacts as past, even though they belong to the present, since I holding these documents in my hands now?

What is at stake here is what we mean by truth, for it is the authenticity of these past documents (that they really belong to the past) that legitimate history and make it different from myth or storytelling. The historian isn’t interested merely in the fact that the battle of Waterloo happened on the 18th of June 1818, but that such an event can be verified by real witness accounts that have been written down and stored in archive. Just as clock time is derivate of lived time, since if human beings did not live in time, then we wouldn’t have clocks, so Heidegger thinks there is a fuller experience of history on which this narrower conception, however important and interesting it is, must rest. Why would we be interested in preserving this past, and why are some pasts more significant than others, since there are pasts that are absolutely lost, and some pasts that now that interest us (the pasts or women and the marginal, for example) that did not interest us before?

Heidegger answer is that the past matters to us because of our present. We can only interpret the past from the vantage point of the present, but this means we see the past in terms of our future. The truth of history is not the collection of supposedly true facts about the past, but how life can be breathed into them so that these lost documents might be retrieved and their burning embers illuminate our world in a new light. We study history because it reveals the present, but in so doing it shines a light forward into our future.

When we come to read Galileo, then, we are not interested in it as a dead object that has nothing to say about our present or our future, but precisely the opposite. The world we live in now is the world picture of Galileo, and the dangers of the future precisely spring out of this future. What is at the heart of Galileo’s projection of nature is mathematics. ‘The book of nature,’ he famously said, is written in the language of mathematics’.[1] Nature was not understood, as it was by the Ancient Greeks, and in the Medieval period, inspired as it was by the writings of Aristotle and other Greek philosophers, as made up of qualities, but as a quantity. What we see, colours, shapes, sizes and sounds, is not what is.

The ancient Greek word for nature is φύσις.[2] Rather than suggesting a mathematical homogenous reality, φύσις is related to the verb φύω, which means to ‘grow, produce or engender’. In latter medical texts of that period, φύσις began to mean not just the process of something (growing, producing, engendering, and so on), but the nature of something, what it is be that thing (Hadot 2004, pp.39–52). It is this notion of φύσις that we find in the works of Plato and Aristotle and which are passed down to our European heritage through the Islamic scholars by the 12th century. It is this intellectual world that is being rejected by Galileo’s hypothesis. Here nature becomes something very different, and its transformation is something that we still live with today.

It is in the next lecture that we shall investigate this transformation metaphysically and not just scientifically (for it is really Descartes who systematises Galileo’s approach and he understands more fully that it requires a whole different way of looking at nature). At this point we only want to describe generally how such a conception of nature is very different from before. It is no longer seen as a living being, but as a machine. It is the machine model of nature that opens it up to mathematisation. It is not that Galileo first sees nature mathematically and then subsequently understands it as a physical quantity, it is because he see nature as machine, whose parts can be explained purely physically, that it is open to the descriptive power of mathematics. It is this physical mathematical model that is still the basis of our modern physics, and affects the way that all view nature and ourselves. The aim of the new science of nature is to uncover those hidden mechanisms behind appearances using the new instruments (like Galileo’s telescope) and technologies, and constructing experiments through which they might be described mathematically.

What is at the heart of the new mechanical, physical, and mathematical model of nature is the belief that reality is homogenous. It is homogeneity of physical reality that is the real revolution of Galileo’s world view. For previously to Galileo, both in Ancient Greek thought, and in the monotheistic faiths, nature was heterogeneous and not homogeneous. Thus, the universe was divided into two distinct spheres, the physical and intelligible in Plato, which was then repeated in Aristotle’s double world view in the difference between the sublunary world and the heavenly spheres. The theistic division of the world into the earthly and heavenly was easily overlaid on top of these philosophical distinctions, such that in the long Scholastic period the one reinforced the other.

From the perspective of the Church, then, especially since there was no empirical proof for Galileo’s Copernicanism, since it was only a hypothesis, the judgement against Galileo was clearly justified. For it overthrew an image of nature that had existed for millennia. What this homogeneity of nature implied (as Spinoza knew only too well), was not that God did not exist, but that there was no unique place for man in the universe. As Freud remarked, the Copernican hypothesis was a blow to man’s pride, not God’s, since God was required to set such a nature in motion, but man certainly wasn’t (1973, pp.284–5). The universe is made of an infinite homogeneous matter, in which there are infinite stars and infinite planets, some no doubt inhabited by beings who equally mistakenly thought they were at the centre of the universe, but who quite obviously were not, just as man isn’t. That later on God dropped out of the model (‘we no longer need this hypothesis,’ as Laplace famously remarked), should not obscure the fact that it was the disappearance of man that led to the disappearance of God, and not the other way around.

You have to read The Dialogue of the Two Chief World Systems with a healthy scepticism (which of course is always the way you should read) (Galilei & Finocchiaro 2008, pp.190–271). Galileo presents the Copernican system as though it were merely an mathematical hypothesis (which is how Copernicus himself understood it), whereas he believed he already had empirical proof that such a motion was real (he even argued erroneously that it was an explanation of the tides on the earth). What you have to understand is what the motion of the earth implied, however much it went against common sense, and why his opponents, who he represents as slaves to their learning and their books, rather than earnest observational study of nature (though it was his theories rather than his observations that were the source for his own hypothesis), were so adamantly against his views. Because to see the earth as in motion meant that there no difference between the earth and the other planets, and thus there was nothing at all distinctive about it.

As he writes at the very beginning of the second day, ‘Independent Mindedness and Aristotle’s Authority’, the traditional view was that the heavenly spheres were ‘ingenerable, indestructible, unchangeable and inert’, whereas the earth was the opposite of this, ‘elemental, generable, degradable, and changeable (Galilei & Finocchiaro 2008, p.193). Galileo’s argument was that there was no difference between the earth and rest of the universe because they were made of one and the same substance, and that the earth is the same as the planet Jupiter, which is clearly moving. It is important to note that Galileo does not get Simplicus (who represents all those who reject the heliocentric view) as not disagreeing with this hypothesis by putting forward a different one, but saying that it disagrees with the authority of Aristotle. Galileo is thereby opposing two different practices of science. One in which observation and theory is fundamental (though he probably overplays the observation, since he already entertained the hypothesis and constructed the experiments to prove them), and the other, traditional and hidebound by the interpretation of texts. The former, Galileo asserts, would have been more attractive to Aristotle than the latter, even though they claim to speak in his name, since he too was a scientist, and if he had looked through Galileo’s telescope would have agreed with him and not his opponents.

If we are going to reject Aristotle, he continues, we do not need another author. The only authority we need is our own senses. Our discussion as proper philosophers should be about the ‘sensible world and not a world on paper’ (Galilei & Finocchiaro 2008, p.201). As we shall see next week, however, it is precisely this world that we cannot see.

[1] He did not actually say this. The quotation is a gloss of a passage in The Assayer. ‘Philosophy is written in this all-encompassing book that is constantly open before our eyes, that is the universe; but it cannot be understood unless one first learns to understand the language and knows the characters in which it is written. It is written in mathematical language, and its characters are triangles, circles, and other geometrical figures; without these it is humanly impossible to understand a word of it, and one wanders around pointlessly in a dark labyrinth’ (Galilei & Finocchiaro 2008, p.183).

[2] For the Liddell and Scott entry for φύσις, see And for φύω, see

Why Philosophy?

February 19, 2015

Hubert_Selby,_JrPlato famously said that the ‘unexamined life is not worth living’ (Apology 38a). But what is an examined life in contrast? Normally, I suppose, when we live our lives we do not question our fundamental principles, values or beliefs. If we did so constantly, then we would not be able to live our lives at all. I imagine this is what most people think philosophers are. People who can’t live proper lives, who have their heads in the skies, who aren’t reasonable, serious people. This isn’t a new insult. It does right back to when there were first philosophers (because there haven’t always been such strange people). Plato tells the story of Thales, who was one of the first philosophers, who we know off, who was so distracted by the heavens that he fell into a hole. This is the passage in full:

Why take the case of Thales. While he was studying the stars and looking upwards, he fell into a pit, and a neat, witty, Thracian girl jeered at him, they say, because he was so eager to know the things in the sky that he could not see what was there before him at his very feet. The same jest applies to all who pass their lives in philosophy.
(Theatetus, 174a)

Well I don’t suppose such a thing really happened. It has the ring of a myth just because the metaphor is so telling. Isn’t studying philosophy just like falling into a hole, and doesn’t everyone laugh at philosophers because they don’t take life seriously enough. The joke, however, in the end is Thales’, because having spent so much time staring at the heavens, he was able to predict that the next olive harvest was going to be very good and thus he made a fortune. Perhaps it is not so useless being a philosopher at all.

I don’t think, though, that was the reason that Plato thought an examined life was better. I don’t think he was recommending philosophy as a way of making money (or getting a career as we might say nowadays). Though that might be a consequence of doing philosophy, that should not be the reason you chose to do philosophy. The reason that Plato recommended philosophy was that he thought that it would make you a better human being.

In this way he saw philosophy as a spiritual task that consumed the whole person and not just a skill one could become better at. The word ‘spiritual’ has perhaps become an overused word in our culture and in that way might be redundant unless we give it a precise meaning. What I do not mean by spirituality in this context is a pseudo-religious activity or practice, as when someone might say that they are spiritual but not religious. Still less do I mean the commercial side of spiritual activity, like faith healing, crystals and reincarnation. All these are a kind of watered down mysticism that is the opposite of what Plato means by an examined life.

At the end of another dialogue, The Symposium, Plato tells us a story about how philosophy was born from Poverty and Resource (203a). Someone who has everything and desires nothing cannot be a philosopher, but equally someone who has nothing and cannot desire anything will not be able either. The philosopher is someone who exists in between the two. She knows that there is truth but that she lacks it, and it is because she lacks it that she desires it. Wisdom, the love of wisdom, which is what philosophy means, is this continual search for the truth and Plato seems to suggest that this search is unending. The philosopher is always looking for the truth and is never certain that she has found it, whereas the non-philosophers are always those who know that they have found the truth and it everyone else that is wrong. The fundamentalist and the philosopher, then, would be two very different people.

Is all of this still too abstract? How would we apply Plato’s dictum to our own lives. Most of the time, I think, if we were to be honest we don’t think for ourselves. Rather we think like everyone else. We have the same opinions, the same likes and dislikes, and we act in the same way. It is when we question this common opinion that we begin to ask ourselves how could we really be ourselves. Now this might seem to be the easiest thing of all to do. Since aren’t we all ‘selves’ aren’t we already born a ‘somebody’, an individual? Yet this self that everyone is isn’t the self that we are after, because we want to be uniquely ourselves. This isn’t something that we born to be. Rather it is something we have to accomplish throughout our whole lives, something it is very possible to fail at.

The courage to be oneself, the courage to just be, is very difficult indeed. To conform, to be like everyone else, is, in comparison, very easy and what we always tempted to do instead. Philosophy isn’t about learning about philosophy just for its own sake, though it can become like that in a university sometimes, but how one faces the question of one’s own existence and how one gives meaning to one’s own life. This means being able to look inside of yourself and reflect about what is important to you, what are you values and desires and from that be able to choose the best life for yourself (which might not be the same as what other people might think is the best life for you), and once you have chosen to have the strength and commitment to carry it through.

What might prevent you from doing so is always the opposite of philosophy, distraction and boredom. Most of the time we just fill our lives in with doing stuff, as though are time were endless and we could always put off making a decision. It’s a bit like how we think about our own deaths. We are always certain that our death is some way ahead (especially when we are young) so we don’t really have to concern ourselves with it. Of course that isn’t true, because in fact our deaths could happen at any time and we wouldn’t know at all. What would it mean to live with that realisation? It would mean that you would have to ask yourself if you were really to die in the next moment would you be wasting your time as you are doing now just drifting from one moment to the next. The American writer, Hubert Selby Jr., speaks about a ‘spiritual experience’ that he had, which is close to what I am describing here. He says that one day at home, he suddenly had the realisation that he was going to die, and that if he did die, he would look back upon his whole life as a waste because he hadn’t done what he wanted to do. He hadn’t become the person he wished to be. In that very moment of wishing that he could live his life again and not waste it, he would die. This realisation terrified him. It was this terror that was his spiritual experience, though at the time, he says, he didn’t realise that, he was just terrified. It was at that very moment that he became a writer. Not that he had any skill, or any idea of what being a writer was, but he wanted to do something with his life (at the time he was on the dole and in between doing dead-end jobs) and writing seemed the best thing (of course it could have been something else, but it was doing something with his life and not regretting it that was the important thing). He has learnt to become a writer by writing but it was his ‘spiritual experience’ that made he do it and also made him commit to it, not just give up because it was difficult.

I think what Plato means by philosophy, by an ‘examined life’ as opposed to an ‘unexamined one’ is what Hubert Selby Jr. means by a ‘spiritual experience’. I am not sure that you can do philosophy if you haven’t had one (though you might be very clever about philosophy). Notice that this experience hasn’t got anything to do with being intellectual or knowing a lot of stuff. It’s about facing oneself honestly and about a commitment to a life without knowing how it might end up.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,251 other followers