Category Archives: philosophy

21 Aug

The Eclipse of the USA

The USA is about to be plunged into the darkness of a total lunar eclipse. Might this physical darkness be an outward and visible sign of a political darkness descending on that nation?

Ironically – weirdly – the last time a total eclipse occurred exclusively in the USA was in 1776, the year of the Declaration of Independence.

Is the belief in signs and portents only superstition, the stuff of astrologers, necromancers and soothsayers – something which we have discarded since the scientific Enlightenment?

Jesus said, “There shall be signs in the sun and in the moon and in the stars, and upon the earth distress of nations with perplexity; the sea and the waves roaring; men’s hearts failing them for fear, and for looking after those things which are coming on the earth.” (Luke 21: 25-26)

But he also said, “This is an evil generation; they seek a sign.” (Luke 11:29)

In other words, there will be signs but we’re not to look for them.

Jesus’ own birth was accompanied by the Bethlehem Star  (Matthew 2:2)

Shakespeare gives voice to the belief that events in the heavens prefigure or correspond in some way with events on earth and he says on Julius Caesar, “When beggars die, there are no comets seen: the heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.”

In 1952 the analytical psychologist C.G. Jung and the Nobel physicist Wolfgang Pauli published a paper Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principle in which they argued that there is another – “force” is the wrong word – another something expressing the interconnectedness of events. They gave examples and attempted an explanation:

The French writer Émile Deschamps claimed in his memoirs that, in 1805, he was treated to some plum pudding by a stranger named Monsieur de Fontgibu. Ten years later, the writer encountered plum pudding on the menu of a Paris restaurant and wanted to order some, but the waiter told him that the last dish had already been served to another customer, who turned out to be de Fontgibu. Many years later, in 1832, Deschamps was at a dinner and once again ordered plum pudding. He recalled the earlier incident and told his friends that only de Fontgibu was missing to make the setting complete – and in the same instant, the now-senile de Fontgibu entered the room.

Jung wrote, after describing such examples, “When coincidences pile up in this way, one cannot help being impressed by them – for the greater the number of terms in such a series, or the more unusual its character, the more improbable it becomes.”]

In his book Thirty Years That Shook Physics – The Story of Quantum Theory (1966), George Gamow writes about Wolfgang Pauli, who was apparently considered a person particularly associated with synchronicity events. Gamow whimsically refers to the “Pauli effect”, a mysterious phenomenon which is not understood on a purely materialistic basis, and probably never will be. The following anecdote is told:

“It is well known that theoretical physicists cannot handle experimental equipment; it breaks whenever they touch it. Pauli was such a good theoretical physicist that something usually broke in the lab whenever he merely stepped across the threshold. A mysterious event that did not seem at first to be connected with Pauli’s presence once occurred in Professor J. Franck’s laboratory in Göttingen. Early one afternoon, without apparent cause, a complicated apparatus for the study of atomic phenomena collapsed. Franck wrote humorously about this to Pauli at his Zürich address and, after some delay, received an answer in an envelope with a Danish stamp. Pauli wrote that he had gone to visit Bohr and at the time of the mishap in Franck’s laboratory his train was stopped for a few minutes at the Göttingen railroad station. You may believe this anecdote or not, but there are many other observations concerning the reality of the Pauli Effect!”

Bunkum or what? Or are there more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in our philosophy? 

26 Apr

The things clever people say!

It’s surprising how often those with the greatest reputations for intelligence say the stupidest things.

Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) for instance, following his 18th century predecessor David Hume, said that the fact the sun has risen every morning in the past gives us “no reason” to believe that it will rise again tomorrow.

But surely if an event has always happened before, we might think we have every reason to expect it to happen again?

Let us find another example from our ordinary experience, not so far-fetched, and see if we can use it to alleviate some of Bertie’s bizarre scepticism. Suppose every Thursday evening for the last ten years just after seven o’clock, I have seen Cedric Buggins leave his house and go into The Rose & Crown on the corner. Further suppose that today is Thursday and I have just seen Mr Buggins leave his house, dressed in his usual jacket and slacks, and head off in the direction of the pub.

According to Bertie’s way of thinking, I would have to say that I have no reason to suppose Mr Buggins is going to the pub. And that, I would say, is downright perverse!

What else do I think Mr Buggins is going to do if not go to the pub (as we say) “as usual”? He must be going somewhere. Am I suddenly, on this Thursday of all Thursdays, to think, “Ah I see Buggins is on his way to the Methodist chapel”?

I think that Russell (and Hume) is here using the word reason inappropriately: he is using it rather as we would use the word proof in logic or mathematics. But conjecture about what’s going on in the empirical world – the sunrise or Buggins’ going to the pub – is not the same sort of thing as reasoning in mathematics and logic.

We might say that Russell is guilty of making a category mistake in applying the mode of reasoning which appertains to the a priori  realms of maths and logic to the empirical world of our daily experience.

Formally, we might wish to add that here Russell is committing the fallacy of ignoratio elenchi by high redefinition of the words no reason. He is applying the sort of reasoning we use in deduction to the happenstance world in which the appropriate mode of reasoning is induction. Deductive logic deals in certainties. Induction is to do with probabilities. Of course I can’t prove that Buggins is going to the pub again tonight or that the sun will rise tomorrow in the same way that I go about proving 7 + 5 = 12. But that doesn’t mean in these cases I have no reason to believe as I do

What else should I believe in this case? There is a plainer way of stating this: it means Russell is missing the bloody point!

While I’m on about Bertie, there’s something else he said that worries me. He complained, “All my life in my study of mathematics, I have been disappointed that I cannot prove its axioms.”

Examples of axioms are, for instance, that the internal angles of any triangle add up to 180 degrees and that parallel lines never meet.

Of course neither I nor Russell can prove the axioms, because proof is something which is applied to propositions. And the axioms are not propositions but definitions. When I say that the internal angles of a triangle add up to 180 degrees, I offering a definition of what I mean by the word triangle. If any plain figure has angles which do not add up to 180 degrees, then it is not a triangle. And if ever we notice two lines converge, we must say these are not parallel lines – because parallel lines are defined as lines which never meet

Bertie, thou art the cleverest man in Cambridge. Knowest thou not these things?

08 Jan

The uncritical critics at SAOS

I don’t usually find myself in agreement with fascists and book-burners, but I do agree with the students of the University of London’s School of African and Oriental Studies (SAOS) – who are fascists and would-be book burners – when they say, “White philosophers should only be studied from a critical perspective.”

I would go further and say that all  philosophers should only be studied from a critical perspective.

The SAOS students’ statement only goes to show that they have no understanding of what philosophy is. Criticism and argument are the very substance of philosophy. In fact they are the requirements for the pursuit of the knowledge of every subject.

Of course there is a subtext here: the demand that white philosophers should be singled out for critical study implies that black and Asian ones should be studied uncritically.

Actually, it is not possible to study anything uncritically. When we begin to study a topic, the first question – I mean first in the sense of logically prior to – must be, “What is this subject about?” This opens up the critical process as one participant replies, “It is about X” and another one chips in, “No, it is about Y”

The SAOS students do not study black and Asian philosophers critically simply because they are not capable of doing so. They have proved their incapacity by their failure to understand the meaning of criticism.

Give these SAOS ideologues, bigots and thickos the credit for practising what they preach. For indeed they do not study black and Asian philosophers critically: instead they sit at their feet and swallow whole every half-baked morsel which emerges from the mouths of their heroes.

In fact their heroes are not philosophers at all, but ideologues and political propagandists and sloganisers just like the students themselves.

I began by expressing my agreement with the students of SAOS. Let me end by doing the same.

Yes, they should study more black and Asian philosophers. Let them start then with St Augustine of Hippo (AD 354-430)

31 Dec

Dear Arthur…

An open letter to my teacher and friend Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860)

Dear Arthur,

I don’t know whether you’ll be able to read this – or,. as today’s quaint phrase has it, “access this” – where you are. And, of course, I don’t know where you are or even if you are. In your great work Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, you drummed it into us that the secret of life is to extinguish the relentlessly insistent will – including the will to live. So perhaps you don’t want to be anywhere. I can’t quite get my head around this. (Another of our irritating modern phrases). You wouldn’t like it here. That incoherent upstart Karl Marx, who was only just getting going in your day, has been tremendously influential all over the world: even so-called “conservative” governments pursue socialist policies these days.

But really I want to tell you about something else. In Britain today there is a national organisation, paid for out of taxation and called the BBC, which tells us what to think and which things to regard as valuable politically, ethically and aesthetically. It doesn’t use books or newspapers to achieve this. Instead every home has a device which enables families to hear, and even see, the BBC propaganda. (I know you will find this far-fetched, but it’s true) The BBC is particularly keen on three things: that we should all be socialists and like crap – excuse my language – “music” and celebrate dead nihilists.

A very rare occurrence: you, dear Arthur, got a mention on the BBC yesterday. It was like this…

There is a feature on the BBC called A Good Read in which celebrities – usually ones who know nothing about literature – talk about the books they are reading. Yesterday, one of the participants mentioned a book by a psycho-thoroughpissed. (It was about death, so I thought you would be interested). The participant was impressed by this book and he praised the thoroughpissed author in  words such as the following, (I paraphrase, but here’s the substance of what he said):

“This is a wonderfully interesting book. The author writes about philosophers such as Nietzsche (worth reading, Arthur) and Sartre (a nihilistic narcissist and not worth reading) and…Schopenhauer. He provides a superb three pages summary of Schopenhauer’s writings. It might encourage you to go on and read Schopenhauer for yourself. But you don’t have to read him: these three pages are adequate in themselves for an understanding of him.”

So, Arthur, finally I come to my reason for writing. I want to apologise. You see, the BBC is not only full of socialists with bad taste in music, it is also – to use another of our tiresome modern expressions, irretrievably “dumbed down.” The very idea – the offence! – that your many thousands of penetrating and entertaining insights in Die Welt  and Parerga und Paralipomena can be distilled into three pages written by a throughpissed is a travesty and an insult.

So, wherever (or if) you are, please accept my renewed thanks for all your glorious works and my embarrassed apology. For I know you won’t get an apology from the BBC. There the philistines are proud of their ignorance and casual in their rudeness

With the best will in the world, I am your devoted pupil and friend


07 Nov

The existence of God

One of the most interesting passages – among so many interesting passages – in Ian Robinson’s writings comes at the end of his book Holding the Centre. He writes:

“After about two decades of intermittent struggle and a not badly received talk to a serious philosophical society on the subject of the ontological argument for the existence of God, I am unable to venture over the verge… To deny that there is judgement is foolish because the statement is itself an attempt at judgment. I would dearly love to be able to show that the insipiens who twice in The Psalms says in his heart there is no God is trying with Derrida to make the sense that there is no sense… I believe we make sense…Can anyone take it any further?”

I don’t think I can take this any further, but i can point to contributions by at least three philosophers which just might.

In An Essay on Metaphysics R.G. Collingwood says:

“If Gaunilo was right when he argued that Anselm’s ontological proof of the existence of God proved the existence of God only to a person who already believed it, Anselm replied that he did not care… Anselm regarded the fool who ‘hath said in his heart, There is no God’ as a fool not because he was blind to the actual existence of un nomme Dieu but because he did not know that the presupposition, ‘God exists’ was a presupposition he himself made.”

In God, Religion & Reality Stephen R.L. Clark writes:

“If rational discourse is only possible in a God-directed universe, it follows that rational atheists must actually rely upon the truth of theism even to argue against it…. God does not belong to the class of existing things, not that he has no existence, but that he is above all existing things, even above existence itself. Any existing God would be less than God. An existent God would be an idol or a demon.

!”A world in which literally anything could happen, for no intelligible reason, is not intelligible at all. If the truth is such as to be intelligible, there must be a reason why it is whatever it is. So either there is something that exists (and never needed to come into existence) because of what it is, or there is no explanation at all for anything.”

In The Experience of God, David Bentley Hart says:

“It simply does not matter very much is some god named ‘God’ might happen to exist, even if he should prove to be the unsurpassable and unique instantiation of the concept ‘god,’ as that fact casts no no real light on the enigma of existence as such. Even if this demiurge really existed, he would still be just one more being out there whose existence would be in need of explanation: one would still have to look past him and his marvellous works in order to contemplate what is truly ultimate: the original source of being upon which he and the world must both be dependent.””

“Whenever Aquinas spoke of the ‘first cause’ of beings, he was referring to an ontological not a chronological priority.”

I wonder if Robinson thinks this takes the matter any further? And I wonder what others might think?

24 Sep

From the horse’s mouth

A team – it’s always a team, isn’t it? – of scientists in Norway claims to have discovered that horses are more intelligent than we thought; and that they think like humans.

Dr Cecilie Mejdell of the Norwegian Veterinary Institute, who led the research, says her team has found a way to ask the horse whether it likes wearing a blanket. In Nordic countries, it’s common for horses to wear blankets in all weathers. No surprise there, then. The team trained horses, by offering slices of carrot as an incentive, to touch a board with their muzzle to indicate if they wanted to wear a rug.

I don’t suppose for a minute that the horses touched the board in order to be given another slice of carrot? 

Dr Mejdell added,  “Horses are often considered to be not very intelligent…” By whom, Dr Mejdell? – “but this shows that, when we use the right methods, they can actually communicate and express their opinions and they can make choices that seem sensible even to us.”

Even to us, eh?

“Express their opinions”?

“Tell me, Trigger, what is your opinion of Jeremy Corbyn?” But horses don’t express opinions any more than we eat hay and neigh.

In trying to evaluate the meaning of these results, we might well remember a saying of Wittgenstein’s: “If a lion could talk, we wouldn’t understand it.”

For intelligence is related to a particular form of life, Lebensformen. And the life of a lion – or a horse – is a different form of life from the life of a human being. Horses don’t usually do crosswords, for example, or play the piano very well.

Of course, some animals can be taught to make responses to stimuli provided by humans in order to receive a reward: it’s called classical conditioning.

But this doesn’t allow us to conclude that, for instance, a horse understands the meaning of the symbol on the board in the same way that humans understand what it means.

In other words, horse sense is different – and necessarily different – from human sense.

The horse might well return to its stable and boast to a horsey colleague: “Guess what? I’ve trained human beings to give me a slice of carrot when I want one.”

Perhaps the experiment shows that horses are more intelligent than Dr Mejdell’s team?

Anyone for a carrot?

27 Jul

Is it weak to keep your trap shut?

Prince Harry says: “It is OK to suffer, but as long as you talk about it, It is not a weakness.”

I sympathise. He has had a an emotionally tough start in life since his mother was killed in a car crash when he was only twelve. I’m sure that sometimes it is helpful to talk about one’s sufferings, though I’m suspicious when it comes to the various “talking therapies.” I was once in a drinks reception in a livery hall in the City of London and found myself in conversation with a Freudian psychiatrist. He asked me what it was like to be a priest and I answered as honestly as i could. I said, “But it must be difficult to be a psychiatrist and have to sit there listening to someone’s outpourings for hours.”

He replied, “Who listens!”

It’s good to talk, they say. And perhaps the buttoned-up heart and the stiff upper lip are not always the best responses to our troubles. But over these last few decades we have swung so far in the other direction with our armies of agony aunts and counsellors. There’s something sickening about all this emoting, letting it all hang out.

I remember an accidentally hilarious, and very telling incident, from 1994. A posse of journalists was taken across to Normandy to report on the commemorations of the D-Day landings of fifty years earlier. The commemorations included some re-enactment of the battle. Upon their return, the journalists were offered counselling.

An eighty-year-old veteran commented: “I was there for the real thing in 1944, and we weren’t offered any bloody counselling! We’d have told ‘em where to stick it!”

I cannot stand the way we medicalise human pain and misery.

Actually, I try to take my guidance from a quite different source:

“He was oppressed and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth.” (Isaiah 53:7)

21 Mar

Sentient beings are an endangered species

The presenter of a BBC television natural history programme invited us to weep with her over the diminishing number of snow leopards: “There are probably no more than 4000 left.” Of course their demise is very largely “our fault.”

But the basic premise of that BBC programme – and indeed of the whole series of which it was a part, of David Attenborough passim  and of the entire natural history department of the BBC – is the doctrine of evolution which, as we all know, involves natural selection and the survival of the fittest. Specifically, evolution has no room for sentiment. Human beings are not a special creation but entirely a part of the natural order.

It’s not so much the atheism of this view which I detest – though I do detest it –  as the inconsistency amounting to self-contradiction.

If, by their actions, human beings – a few of whom are said to be homo sapiens – reduce the population of snow leopards, then their reducing the number of snow leopards also is part of the natural order.

Evolution knows nothing of ethics.

So that presenter cannot legitimately introduce an ethical proposition, as she did, without stepping outside the doctrine of evolution. But this is precisely what she is not permitted to do – because she holds that doctrine exclusively and absolutely.

Evolutionists believe there is no God and there is no teleology. It has no use for the concepts of praise and blame. So it is senseless to say that the demise of the snow leopard is “our fault” – or anybody’s fault.

Incidentally, the disjunction between evolution and ethics also extends to a similar disjunction between evolution and aesthetics: that is we cannot say that the snow leopard  is beautiful without employing criteria which derive from outside the dogma of evolution.

It is impossible to combine natural selection with cuddly snow leopard cubs. But it doesn’t stop our contemporary Darwinists from going “Ooh!” and “Aah!”

02 Sep

Bless me, Father, for I have sinned

Pope Francis has announced that he will allow priests to absolve women who have had abortions if they seek forgiveness during the forthcoming Holy Year of Mercy. The Pope said he will permit priests “the discretion to absolve of the sin of abortion those who have procured it and who, with contrite heart, seek forgiveness for it” during the special year which will begin on 8th December – the Feast of the immaculate Conception.

He added, “I am well aware of the pressure that has led women to this decision and I know that it is an existential and moral ordeal.”

I find this confusing. The Pope seems to be saying that the pronouncement of the forgiveness of a particular sin – abortion – has not always been in the capacity of every priest. The Bible says that Jesus ordained his disciples. “Then said he unto them again, Peace be unto you; as the Father hath sent me, even so send I you. Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, the are retained.” (St John 20:23)

And ever since Our Lord’s commission, every priest has the authority to forgive all sins, mortal as well as venial, including the sin of procuring an abortion. Except one: the sin of blasphemy against the Holy Ghost. (St Mark 3:29). And the only reason why that sin cannot be forgiven is because it is not possible sincerely to confess it: for blasphemy against the Holy Ghost effectually involves a person in praying, “Evil, be thou my good.”

Surely the Pope, of all people, understands that all his priests have the authority to forgive sins?

So what’s going on?

The Pope’s announcement is a political gesture by which he has fired a salvo across the bows of his traditional bishops.

This is the back story…

Last October the Pope inaugurated part one of a Vatican Synod in which he hoped his bishops would agree with his proposals for a relaxation of the rules concerning sexual ethics in such matters as homosexuality, abortion, divorce and remarriage. But he met considerable opposition and so next month, when the bishops reconvene for part two of the Synod, the Pope is going to have another try to institute his “reforms.”

All the signs are that he will once again face strong opposition from traditionalists: that is from the authentic Catholics

15 Jun

What causes stuff?

“Britain’s youngest suicide bomber” – some appellation, eh? – Talha Asmal was described as “loving, caring, naive, innocent kind and affable.” I think those who thus praised him perhaps forgot to add “fanatical and murderous.” Now there is an investigation to discover what “caused” him to decide to become a murderer in the employ of Islamic State. There is a great industry in this business of looking for causes and I’m reminded of the case of Andreas Lubitz who committed mass murder by crashing a Germanwings aeroplane into the Alps. There has been a meticulous search for causes in his case too.

How about, in both cases, we were to say that they perpetrated those atrocities because they wanted to? Or have we suddenly become determinists and deny that there is such a faculty as freewill?

Determinism, looking for causes, is a very popular sport among those of a secular, positivistic, scientific disposition. This doctrine allows them to avoid having to take into account entities which they find problematic such as mind and will, moral qualities – or the lack of them.

The trouble with the deterministic view is that it logically entails the conclusion that, if no one is to be blamed for the wrong that they do, then no one can be praised when they do what is right. In short, ethics is abolished. There’s nothing either good or bad, but “causes” make things so.

So what of the Catholic nun who takes the place of a Jewish woman in the queue for the gas chamber? Or the policeman who dives for a second time into the freezing lake to save a child?

If all our actions are caused, then no villain is ever guilty and no hero deserves praise.

The deterministic world is one in which everything that we mean by a human being has been removed.

I have just enjoyed a duck egg on fried bread. I shall now spend the rest of the day trying to work out what “caused” me to eat my breakfast.