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Archive for the tag “Aristotle”

Will Durant and the Story of Philosophy

I concluded my last post on this website, Defining Philosophy and Its Uses, with a long quotation from Will Durant stating the importance of philosophy as a synthesis of knowledge and distiller of wisdom. Now, I would like to write more about Durant and why he is important. Unlike Bertrand Russell, whom I have discussed several times, Durant was not primarily a philosopher or an academic. He was primarily a popular writer of world history and philosophy. His first major work was The Story of Philosophy in 1926, which I will compare with Russell’s similarly-themed 1945 work, A History of Western Philosophy.

From: willdurant.com

Will Durant was born in Massachusetts in 1885, and after receiving a Jesuit education, began working as a journalist, school teacher, and librarian. As a young man he was politically aligned with the socialist cause, which led him to begin teaching at an advanced working-class school, and which influenced his social views the rest of his life. He gradually rejected the political radicalism which became associated with socialism of the period, and deepened his relationship with philosophy and culture. He quit his teaching job in 1913 in pursuit of a doctorate in philosophy, and a bigger classroom. The Story of Philosophy was published in 1926, and became an enormous popular success that gave Durant financial independence for the rest of his life. Accordingly, he used this freedom to continue his lifelong project of spreading knowledge and culture to the masses–that is, to the common, non-academic, working-class reader. Along with his wife Ariel, he spent the rest of his very long life working on the 10-volume, 10,000+ page The Story of Civilization. He died in 1981 at the age of 96. Many of his works can be downloaded and read for free from the internet (The Story of Philosophy here; the first 4 volumes of The Story of Civilization here; some assorted articles here).

I have already mentioned how one of the downsides of Russell’s History is its rather cursory, and occasionally overly-critical, commentary on large swathes of important thinkers, which was obviously a necessity for a book with such an enormous scope. In the case of Durant’s work, this criticism must be even more pronounced. Rather than attempting to paint a complete picture of all of western philosophy, Durant is satisfied to go into reasonable depth with just a small and select group of the most important thinkers (and, as we shall see, some that were his personal favorites). The main chapters of the work are based around vignettes of Plato, Aristotle, Francis Bacon, Spinoza, Voltaire, Kant, Schopenhauer, Herbert Spencer, Nietzsche, and short discussions of then-contemporary European and American philosophers–Henri Bergson, Benedetto Croce, and Bertrand Russell; and George Santayana, William James, and John Dewey. Even from within this small group, you will no doubt notice the presence of some names that are not considered part of the most important or influential philosophic tradition–Herbert Spencer most of all, and Voltaire to a lesser degree. In my opinion, the chapter on Voltaire needs no apology since it is such an elegant and entertaining description of an almost impossibly interesting and powerful mind (it is probably my favorite part of the book, and I learned much about the now criminally-underrated Enlightenment thinker). Spencer is more perplexing, and must be mostly attributed to the fact that he seemed to share Durant’s mission for synthesizing and uniting all science and knowledge into a useful whole for mankind, rather than its many technical parts. In any case, Durant states his purpose in the preface:

This book is not a complete history of philosophy. It is an attempt to humanize knowledge by centering the story of speculative thought around certain dominant personalities. Certain lesser figures have been omitted in order that those selected might have the space required to make them live. Hence the inadequate treatment of the half-legendary pre-Socratics, the Stoics and Epicureans, the Scholastics, and the epistemologists. The author believes that epistemology has kidnapped modern philosophy, and well nigh ruined it; he hopes for the time when the study of the knowledge-process will be recognized as the business of the science of psychology, and when philosophy will again be understood as the synthetic interpretation of all experience rather than the analytic description of the mode and process of experience itself. Analysis belongs to science, and gives us knowledge; philosophy must provide a synthesis for wisdom.

In this purpose, I think there is no doubt that he has succeeded. The Story of Philosophy is not only eminently readable, but engrossing, pleasurable, and fully worthy of the word ‘story’. It was difficult to select even some short representative passages to quote here, because every sentence is elegantly and poetically crafted, and the book is already such a compact and fast-moving summary of its protagonists. It is often said that the best way to understand philosophy is to read the works of the great philosophers directly. If we are to make exceptions to this dictum, I think the best place to begin for the young or uninitiated student of philosophy is The Story of Philosophy, followed by Russell’s more comprehensive, critical, and profound (though no less stylistically written) A History of Western Philosophy. Both works also achieve the identical goal of both authors in spreading and increasing human wisdom through knowledge and culture, and via history and philosophy.

(Incidentally, these two men were not necessarily in agreement on specific views within philosophy, but happened to share the same overall education purpose. In his autobiography, Russell includes a long letter from Durant, which appears to have been their only direct communication. Durant gives a rather long-winded account of his views on the antagonism of science and philosophy, and states his newest mission of interviewing all the greatest minds in the world for their opinions on the meaning of life, and ends with a list of his own literary and professional qualifications. Russell responds tersely, and somewhat dismissively, that “I am sorry to say that at the moment I am so busy as to be convinced that life has no meaning whatever… I do not see that we can judge what would be the result of the discovery of truth, since none has hitherto been discovered.”)

Durant criticizing Plato:

What Plato lacks above all, perhaps, is the Heracleitean sense of flux and change; he is too anxious to have the moving picture of this world become a fixed and still tableau. He loves order exclusively, like any timid philosopher; he has been frightened by the democratic turbulence of Athens into an extreme neglect of individual values; he arranges men in classes like an entomologist classifying flies; and he is not averse to using priestly humbug to secure his ends. His state is static; it might easily become an old-fogey society, ruled by inflexible octogenarians hostile to invention and jealous of change. It is mere science without art; it exalts order, so dear to the scientific mind, and quite neglects that liberty which is the soul of art; it worships the name of beauty, but exiles the artists who alone can make beauty or point it out. It is a Sparta or a Prussia, not an ideal state.

On adapting Plato to our own purposes (educational and political reform in this case):

And now that these unpleasant necessities are candidly written down, it remains to do willing homage to the power and profundity of Plato’s conception. Essentially he is right–is he not?–what this world needs is to be ruled by its wisest men. It is our business to adapt his thought to our own times and today we must take democracy for granted: we cannot limit the suffrage as Plato proposed; but we can put restrictions on the holding of office, and in this way secure that mixture of democracy and aristocracy which Plato seems to have in mind. We may accept without quarrel his contention that statesmen should be as specifically and thoroughly trained as physicians; we might establish departments of political science and administration in our universities; and when these departments have begun to function adequately we might make men ineligible for nomination to political office unless they were graduates of such political schools. We might even make every man eligible for an office who had been trained for it, and thereby eliminate entirely that complex system of nominations in which the corruption of our democracy has its seat; let the electorate choose any man who, properly trained and qualified, announces himself as a candidate. In this way democratic choice would be immeasurably wider than now, when Tweedledum and Tweedledee stage their quadrennial show and sham. Only one amendment would be required to make quite democratic this plan for the restriction of office to graduates in administrative technique; and that would be such equality of educational opportunity as would open to all men and women, irrespective of the means of their parents, the road to university training and political advancement. It would be very simple to have and counties and states offer scholarships to all graduates of grammar school, high school and who had shown. a certain standard’ of ability, and whose parents were financially unable to see them through the next stage of the educational process. That would be a democracy worthy of the name.

On the some of the problems with Aristotle:

It is difficult to be enthusiastic about Aristotle, because it was difficult for him to be enthusiastic about anything… He realized too completely the Delphic command to avoid excess: he is so anxious to pare away extremes that at last nothing is left. He is so fearful of disorder that he forgets to be fearful of slavery; he.is so timid of uncertain change that he prefers a certain changelessness that near resembles death. He lacks that Heraclitean sense of flux which justifies the conservative in believing that all permanent change is gradual, and justifies the radical in believing that no changelessness is permanent. He forgets that Plato’s communism was meant only for the elite, the unselfish and ungreedy few; and he comes deviously to a Platonic result when he says that though property should be private, its use should be as far as possible common. He does not see (and perhaps he could not be expected in his early day to see) that individual control of the means of production was stimulating and salutary only when these means were so simple as to be purchasable by any man; and that their increasing complexity and cost lead to a dangerous centralization of ownership and power, and to an artificial and finally disruptive inequality.

On Francis Bacon:

His achievement was not the less great because it was indirect. His philosophical works, though little read now, “moved the intellects which moved the world.” He made himself the eloquent voice of the optimism and resolution of the Renaissance. Never was any man so great a stimulus to other thinkers… The whole tenor and career of British thought have followed the philosophy of Bacon. His tendency to conceive the world in Democritean mechanical terms gave to his secretary, Hobbes, the starting-point for a thorough-going materialism; his inductive metbod gave to Locke the idea of an empirical psychology, bound by observation and freed from theology and metaphysics; and his emphasis on “commodities” and “fruits” found formulation in Bentham’s identification of the useful and the good. Wherever the spirit of control has overcome the spirit of resignation, Bacon’s influence has been felt. He is the voice of all those Europeans who have changed a continent from a forest into a treasure-land of art and science, and have made their little peninsula the center of the world… Everything is possible to man. Time is young; give us some little centuries, and we shall control and remake all things. We shall perhaps at last learn the noblest lesson of all, that man must not fight man, but must make war only on the obstacles that nature offers to the triumph of man.

Durant’s simple “Table of Philosophic Affiliations”. Of the philosophers mentioned in his book, only Rousseau is missing, whom I would place somewhere to the beneath and to the left of Liebniz.

On Intelligence and Morals in the Ethics of Spinoza (the earliest and favorite of Durant’s influences):

Ultimately there are but three systems of ethics, three conceptions of the ideal character and the moral life. One is that of Buddha and Jesus, which stresses the feminine virtues, considers all men to be equally precious, resists evil only by returning good, identifies virtue with love, and inclines in politics to unlimited democracy. Another is the ethic of Machiavelli and Nietzsche, which stresses the masculine virtues, accepts the inequality of men, relishes the risks of combat and conquest and rule, identifies virtue with power, and exalts an hereditary aristocracy. A third, the ethic of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, denies the universal applicability of either the feminine or the masculine virtues; considers that only the informed and mature mind can judge, according to diverse circumstance, when love should rule, and when power; identifies virtue, therefore, with intelligence; and advocates a varying mixture of aristocracy and democracy in government. It is the distinction of Spinoza that his ethic unconsciously reconciles these apparently hostile philosophies, weaves them into a harmonious unity, and gives us in consequence a system of morals which is the supreme achievement of modern thought. He begins by making happiness the goal of conduct; and he defines happiness very simply as the presence of pleasure and the absence of pain. But pleasure and pain are relative, not absolute; and they are not states but transitions… He thinks that egoism is a necessary corollary of the supreme instinct of self-preservation…

So he builds his ethic not on altruism and the natural goodness of man, like utopian reformers; nor on selfishness and the natural wickedness of man, like cynical conservatives, but on what he considers to be an inevitable and justifiable egoism… He believes it is a simple matter to show that hatred, perhaps because it trembles on the verge of love, can be more easily overcome by love than by reciprocated hate. For hatred is fed on the feeling that it is returned; whereas “he who believes himself to be loved by one whom he hates is a prey to the conflicting emotions of hatred and love,” since (as Spinoza perhaps too optimistically believes) love tends to beget love; so that his hatred disintegrates and loses force…

Spinoza’s ethics flows from his metaphysics: just as reason there lay in the perception of law in the chaotic flux of things, so here it lies in the establishment of law in the chaotic flux of desires; there it lay in seeing, here it lies in acting, sub specie eternitatis–under the form of eternity; in making perception and action fit the eternal perspective of the whole. Thought helps us to this larger view because it is aided by imagination, which presents to consciousness those distant effects of present actions which could have no play upon reaction if reaction were thoughtlessly immediate. The great obstacle to intelligent behavior is the superior vividness of present sensations as compared with those projected memories which we call imagination. By imagination and reason we turn experience into foresight; we become the creators of our future, and cease to be the slaves of our past. So we achieve the only freedom possible to man. The passivity of passion is “human bondage,” the action of reason is human liberty. Freedom is not from causal law or process, but from partial passion or impulse; and freedom not from passion, but from uncoordinated and uncompleted passion. We are free only where we know. To be a superman is to be free not from the restraints of social justice and amenity, but from the individualism of the instincts. With this completeness and integrity comes the equanimity of the wise man; not the aristocratic self-complacency of Aristotle’s hero, much less the supercilious superiority of Nietzsche’s ideal, but a more comradely poise and peace of mind. “Men who are good by reason–i. e., men who, under the guidance of reason, seek what is useful to them–desire nothing for themselves which they do not also desire for the rest of mankind.” To be great is not to be placed above humanity, ruling others; but to stand above the partialities and futilities of uninformed desire, and to rule one’s self…

Such a philosophy teaches us to say Yea to life, and even to death–“a free man thinks of nothing less than of death; and his wisdom is a meditation not on death but on life.” It calms our fretted egos with its large perspective; it reconciles us to the limitations within which our purposes must be circumscribed. It may lead to resignation and an Orientally supine passivity; but it is also the indispensable basis of all wisdom and all strength.

On Voltaire:

Italy had a Renaissance, and Germany had a Reformation, but France had Voltaire; he was for his country both Renaissance and Reformation, and half the Revolution. He carried on the antiseptic scepticism of Montaigne, and the healthy earthy humor of Rabelais; he fought superstition and corruption more savagely and effectively than Luther or Erasmus, Calvin or Knox or Melanchthon; he helped to make the powder with which Mirabeau and Marat, Danton and Robespierre blew up the Old Regime…

No, never has a writer had in his lifetime such influence. Despite exile, imprisonment, and the suppression of almost everyone of his books by the minions of church and state, he forged fiercely a path for his truth, until at last kings, popes and emperors catered to him, thrones trembled before him, and half the world listened to catch his every word. It was an age in which many things called for a destroyer. “Laughing lions must come,” said Nietzsche; well, Voltaire came, and “annihilated with laughter.” He and Rousseau were the two voices of a vast process of economic and political transition from feudal aristocracy to the rule of the middle class…

He was happy in his garden, planting fruit trees which he did not expect to see flourish in his lifetime. When an admirer praised the work he had done for posterity he answered, ”Yes, I have planted 4000 trees.”

He rejects all systems, and suspects that “every chief of a sect in philosophy has been a little of a quack.” “The further I go, the more I am confirmed in the idea that systems of metaphysics are for philosophers what novels are for women.” “It is only charlatans who are certain. We know nothing of first principles. It is truly extravagant to define God, angels, and minds, and to know precisely why God formed the world, when we do not know why we move our arms at will. Doubt is not a very agreeable state, but certainty is a ridiculous one.”

On Kant:

The great achievement of Kant is to have shown, once for all, that the external world is known to us only as sensation; and that the mind is no mere helpless tabula rasa, the inactive victim of sensation, but a positive agent, selecting and reconstructing experience as experience arrives. We can make subtractions from this accomplishment without injuring its essential greatness…

There is something of a severe Scotch Calvinism in this opposition of duty to happiness; Kant continues Luther and the Stoic Reformation:, as Voltaire continues Montaigne and·the Epicurean Renaissance. He represented a stern reaction against the egoism and hedonism in which Helvetius and Holbach had formulated the life of their reckless era, very much as Luther had reacted against the luxury and laxity of Mediterranean Italy. But after a century of reaction against the absolutism of Kant’s ethics, we find ourselves again in a welter of urban sensualism and immorality, of ruthless individualism untempered with democratic conscience or aristocratic honor; and perhaps the day will soon come when a disintegrating civilization will welcome again the Kantian call to duty…

After a century of struggle between the idealism of Kant, variously reformed, and the materialism of the Enlightenment, variously redressed, the victory seems to lie with Kant. Philosophy will never again be so naive as in her earlier and simpler days; she must always be different hereafter, and profounder, because Kant lived.

On Schopenhauer:

Part of the cause of pessimism, in Schopenhauer and his contemporaries, lay in their romantic attitudes and expectations. Youth expects too much of the· world; pessimism is the morning after optimism, just as 1815 had to pay for 1789. The romantic exaltation and liberation of feeling, instinct and will, and the romantic contempt for intellect, restraint, and order, brought their natural penalties; for “the world,” as Horace Walpole said, “is a comedy for those who think, but a tragedy for those who feel.”…

Is it true that ”he that increaseth lmowledge increaseth sorrow,” and that it is the most highly organized beings that suffer most? Yes; but it is also true that the growth of knowledge increases joy as well as sorrow, and that the subtlest delights, as well as the keenest pains, are reserved for the developed soul. Voltaire rightly preferred the Brahmin’s ”unhappy” to the blissful ignorance of the peasant woman; we wish to experience life keenly and deeply, even at the cost of pain; we wish to venture into its innermost secrets, even at the cost of disillusionment…

There are other difficulties, more technical and less vital, in this remarkable and stimulating philosophy. How can suicide ever occur in a world where the only real force is the will to live? How can the intellect, begotten and brought up as servant of the will, ever achieve independence and objectivity? Does genius lie in knowledge divorced from will, or does it contain, as its driving force” an immense power of will, even a large alloy of personal ambition and. conceit? Is madness connected with genius in general, or rather with only the “romantic” type of genius (Byron, Shelley, Poe, Heine, Swinburne, Strindberg, Dostoievski, etc.); and is not the “classic” and profounder type of genius exceptionally sound (Socrates, Plato, Spinoza, Bacon, Newton, Voltaire, Goethe, Darwin, Whitman, etc.)? What if the proper function of intellect and philosophy is not the denial of the will but the coordination of desires into a united and harmonious, will? What if “will” itself, except as the unified product of such coordination, is a mythical abstraction, as shadowy as “force”?…

On Nietzsche:

Only a professor of paradox could rank the obscure and dogmatic fragments of Heraclitus above the mellowed wisdom and the developed art of Plato. With all his philology, Nietzsche never quite penetrated to the spirit of the Greeks; never learned the lesson that moderation and self-knowledge (as taught by the Delphic inscriptions and the greater· philosophers) must bank, without extinguishing, the fires of passion and desire; that Apollo must limit Dionysus. Some have described Nietzsche as a pagan; but he was not that: neither Greek pagan like Pericles nor German pagan like Goethe; he lacked the balance and restraint that made these men strong. “I shall give back to men the serenity which is the condition of all culture,” he writes, but alas, how can one give what one has not? …

Nietzsche here fell short of that historical sense which he lauded as so necessary to philosophy; or he would have seen the doctrine of meekness and humbleness of heart as a necessary antidote to the violent and warlike virtues of the barbarians who nearly destroyed, in the first millennium of the Christian era, that very culture to which Nietzsche always returns for nourishment and refuge. Surely this wild emphasis on power and movement is the echo of a feverish and chaotic age? This supposedly universal “will to power” hardly expresses the quiescence of the Hindu, the calm of the Chinese, or the satisfied routine of the medieval peasant. Power is the idol of some of us; but most of us long rather for security and peace…

Foiled in his search for love, he turned upon woman with a bitterness unworthy of a philosopher, and unnatural in a man; missing parentage and losing friendship, he never knew that the finest moments of life come through mutuality and comradeship, rather than from domination and war. He did not live long enough, or widely enough, to mature his half-truths into wisdom. Perhaps if he had lived longer he would have turned his strident chaos into a harmonious philosophy. Truer of him than of the Jesus to whom he applied them, were his own words: “He died too early; he himself would have revoked his doctrine had he Teached” a riper age; “noble enough to revoke he was!” But death had other plans…

He spoke with bitterness, but with invaluable sincerity; and his thought went through the clouds and cobwebs of the modern mind like cleansing lightning and a-rushing wind. The air of European philosophy is clearer and fresher now because Nietzsche wrote.

On Henri Bergson:

It was a wholesome thing that this eloquent challenge should check the excesses of intellectualism; but it was as unwise to offer intuition in the place of thought as it would be to correct the fancies of youth, with the fairy-tales of childhood. Let us correct our errors forward, not backward. To say that the world suffers from too much intellect would require the courage of a madman. The romantic protest against thinking, from Rousseau and Chateaubriand to Bergson and Nietzsche and James, has done,its work; we will agree to dethrone the Goddess of Reason if we are not asked to re-light the candles before the ikon of Intuition. Man exists by instinct, but he progresses by intelligence.

On Bertrand Russell:

There have been two Bertrand Russells: one who died during the war; and another who rose out of that one’s shroud, an almost mystic communist born out of the ashes of a mathematical logician. Perhaps there was a tender mystic strain in him always; represented at first by a mountain of algebraic formulae; and then finding a distorted expression in a socialism that has the earmarks rather of a religion than of a philosophy. The most characteristic title among his books is Mysticism and Logic: a merciless attack on the illogicality of mysticism, followed by such a glorification of scientific method as makes one think of the mysticism of logic. Russell inherits the English positivist tradition, and is resolved to be tough-minded, because he knows that he cannot…

It is remarkable that after writing several volumes of this learned moonshine, Bertrand Russell should suddenly come down upon the surface of this planet, and begin to reason very passionately about war, and government, and socialism, and revolution,– and never once make use of the impeccable formulae piled like Pelion upon Ossa in his Principia Mathematica. Nor has anyone else, observably, made use of them…

Freedom is the supreme good; for without it personality is impossible. Freedom of thought and speech would go like a cleansing draught through the neuroses and superstitions of the “modern” mind. For we are not so educated as we think; we are but beginning the great experiment of universal schooling; and it has not had time to affect profoundly our ways of thinking and our public life. We are building the equipment, but we are still primitive in methods and technique; we think of education as the transmission of a certain body of settled knowledge, when it should be rather the development of a scientific habit of mind. The distinctive feature of the unintelligent man is the hastiness and absoluteness of his opinions; the scientist is slow to believe, and never speaks without modification…

There is nothing that man might not do if our splendid organization of schools and universities were properly developed and properly manned, and directed intelligently to the reconstruction of human character. This, and not violent revolution, or paper legislation, is the way out of economic greed and international brutality. Man has come to control all other forms of life because he has taken more time in which to grow up; when he takes still more time, and spends that time more wisely, he may learn even to control arid. remake himself. Our schools are the open sesame to Utopia…

All in all, a very lovable man: capable of the profoundest metaphysics and the subtlest mathematics, and yet speaking always simply, with the clarity which comes only to those who are sincere; a man addicted to fields of thought that usually dry up the springs of feeling, and yet warmed and illumined with pity, full of an almost mystic tenderness for mankind. Not a courtier, but surely a scholar and a gentleman, and a better Christian than some who mouth the word. Happily, he is still young and vigorous, the flame of life burns brightly in him yet; who knows but this next decade will see him grow out of disillusionment into wisdom, and write his name among the highest in “the serene brotherhood of philosophs”?

On George Santayana:

“Wisdom comes by disillusionment,” says Santayana; but again that is only the beginning of wisdom, as doubt is the beginning of philosophy; it is not also the end and fulfillment. The end is happiness and philosophy is only a means; if we take it as an end we become like the Hindu mystic whose life-purpose is to concentrate upon his navel.

On William James:

Certainly, as everyone has pointed out, the manner, if not the substance, of James’s thinking was specifically and uniquely American. The American lust for movement and acquisition fills the sails of his style and thought, and gives them a buoyant and almost aerial motility. Huneker calls it “a philosophy for philistines,” and indeed there is something that smacks of salesmanship in it: James talks of God as of an article to be sold to a materialistically-minded consumer by every device of optimistic advertising; and he counsels us to believe as if he were recommending long-term investments, with high dividends, in which there was nothing to lose, and all the (other) world to win. It was young America’s defense-reaction against European metaphysics and European Science…

When some pragmatists speak of a belief having been true once because they were useful (though now disproved), they utter nonsense learnedly; it was a useful error, not a truth. Pragmatism is correct only if it is a platitude.

On John Dewey:

In an industrial society the school should be a miniature workshop and a miniature community; it should teach through practice, and through trial and error, the arts and discipline necessary for economic and social order. And finally, education must be re-conceived, not as merely a preparation for maturity (whence our absurd idea that it should stop after adolescence), but as a continuous growth of the mind and a continuous illumination of life. In a sense, the schools can give us only the instrumentalities of mental growth; the rest depends upon our absorption and interpretation of experience. Real education comes after we leave school; and there is no reason why it should stop before our death…

What Dewey sees and reverences as the finest of all things, as growth; so much so, that he makes this relative but specific notion, and no absolute “good,” his ethical criterion…

Our trust must after all be in thought, and not in instinct;–how could instinct adjust us to the increasingly artificial environment which industry has built around us, and the maze of intricate problems in which we are enmeshed?…

But political reconstruction will come only when we apply to our social problems the experimental methods and attitudes which have succeeded so well in the natural sciences. We are still in the metaphysical stage of political philosophy; we fling abstractions at one another’s heads, and when the battle is over nothing is won. We cannot cure our social ills with wholesale ideas, magnificent generalizations like individualism or order, democracy or monarchy or aristocracy, or what not. We must meet each problem with a specific hypothesis, and no universal theory; theories are tentacles, and fruitful progressive living must rely on trial and error.

Defining Philosophy and its Uses

The unexamined life is not worth living for man. Thus spoke Socrates through the writings of his greatest pupil, Plato. With this remark, Socrates, who is acknowledged as the first philosopher to direct his attention primarily at ethics in human affairs, might have come as close as anyone ever has in finding the solution to the questions of what is philosophy and how is it used. To him, it is an examination of one’s life. Nevertheless, let us expand on these questions to search for its role in the modern world, in which it is sometimes believed that science and technology have rendered obsolete the “love of wisdom.”

I believe it is de rigueur, when discussing any point about philosophy, to first refer to the twin titans of ancient Greece thought for their opinions on the matter (pun intended)–even if their opinions tend to be somewhat less than credible by today’s standards.

Plato, Theaetetus:

Wonder (Greek: thaumata) is the only beginning of philosophy.” (155d)

Aristotle, Metaphysics:

It is owing to their wonder (thaumata) that men both now begin and at first began to philosophize.” (982b)

They unexpectedly seem to agree on something in this case. To my mind, however, the sense of wonder brought about by pondering the mysteries of nature does not necessarily lead directly to philosophy. Nor does philosophy always begin with this sense of wonder. It could come from, say, doubt, or perhaps insatiable curiosity. As for the uses of philosophy, Plato and Aristotle spend the rest of their respective careers attempting to expound on them. They rarely came to the same conclusions, and today we are unlikely to find much sense in either one, but they both are entitled to the claim of setting the boundaries of philosophy and its subfields.

Martin Heidegger, from the essay What is Philosophy? (1955):

Thaumazein (to wonder or marvel at) is the astonishment wherein philosophizing originates.

There seems to be, in this case, a curious similarity between the Athenian and the Stagirite, and the German. In his essay, Heidegger further explains that “For, to be sure, although we do remain always and everywhere in correspondence to the Being of being, … only at times does it become an unfolding attitude specifically adopted by us. Only when this happens do we really correspond to that which concerns philosophy.” (75) Even if I can try to make myself understand what Heidegger is talking about, it is hard for me to grasp anything meaningful and useful in his abstractions. A definition or description should be, at a minimum, comprehensible (which is a word seldom ascribed to Heidegger). Let’s move on.

Bertrand Russell, from ‘Introduction’ of A History of Western Philosophy (1945):

Philosophy, as I shall understand the word, is something intermediate between theology and science. Like theology, it consists of speculations on matters as to which definite knowledge has, so far, been unascertainable; but like science, it appeals to human reason rather than to authority, whether that of tradition or that of revelation. All definite knowledge-so I should contend-belongs to science; all dogma as to what surpasses definite knowledge belongs to theology. But between theology and science there is a No Man’s Land, exposed to attack from both sides; this No Man’s Land is philosophy. Almost all the questions of most interest to speculative minds are such as science cannot answer, and the confident answers of theologians no longer seem so convincing as they did in former centuries. Is the world divided into mind and matter, and, if so, what is mind and what is matter? Is mind subject to matter, or is it possessed of independent powers? Has the universe any unity or purpose? Is it evolving towards some goal? Are there really laws of nature, or do we believe in them only because of our innate love of order? Is man what he seems to the astronomer, a tiny lump of impure carbon and  water impotently crawling on a small and unimportant planet? Or is he what he appears to Hamlet? Is he perhaps both at once? Is there a way of living that is noble and another that is base, or are all ways of living merely futile? If there is a way of living that is noble, in what does it consist, and how shall we achieve it? Must the good be eternal in order to deserve to be valued, or is it worth seeking even if the universe is inexorably moving towards death? Is there such a thing as wisdom, or is what seems such merely the ultimate refinement of folly? To such questions no answer can be found in the laboratory. Theologies have professed to give answers, all too definite; but their very definiteness causes modern minds to view them with suspicion. The studying of these questions, if not the answering of them, is the business of philosophy.

Why, then, you may ask, waste time on such insoluble problems? To this one may answer as a historian, or as an individual facing the terror of cosmic loneliness.

The answer of the historian, in so far as I am capable of giving it, will appear in the course of this work. Ever since men became capable of free speculation, their actions, in innumerable important respects, have depended upon their theories as to the world and human life, as to what is good and what is evil. This is as true in the present day as at any former time. To understand an age or a nation, we must understand its philosophy, and to understand its philosophy we must ourselves be in some degree philosophers. There is here a reciprocal causation: the circumstances of men’s lives do much to determine their philosophy, but, conversely, their philosophy does much to determine their circumstances. This interaction throughout the centuries will be the topic of the following pages.

There is also, however, a more personal answer. Science tells us what we can know, but what we can know is little, and if we forget how much we cannot know we become insensitive to many things of very great importance. Theology, on the other hand, induces a dogmatic belief that we have knowledge where in fact we have ignorance, and by doing so generates a kind of impertinent insolence towards the universe. Uncertainty, in the presence of vivid hopes and fears, is painful, but must be endured if we wish to live without the support of comforting fairy tales. It is not good either to forget the questions that philosophy asks, or to persuade ourselves that we have found indubitable answers to them. To teach how to live without certainty, and yet without being paralysed by hesitation, is perhaps the chief thing that philosophy, in our age, can still do for those who study it.

I have already written a two-part essay based around excerpts from Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy, and this segment is taken from the introduction in which he gives his definition and use of philosophy. It is self-explanatory, and I have nothing to add other than to say that I hope the reader is as inspired by Russell as the author of this website.

Ludwig WittgensteinPhilosophical Investigations (1953):

Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.” (§ 109)

The work of the philosopher consists in assembling reminders for a particular purpose.” (§ 127)

A philosophical problem has the form: ‘I don’t know my way about.‘” (§123), therefore the aim of philosophy is “to show the fly out of the fly-bottle.” (§ 309)

Ludwig Wittgenstein

I have cited Russell’s brilliant protégé because his position represents arguably the furthest possible development of thought within logical and philosophical analysis. Wittgenstein attempted to prove that all philosophical problems could be attributed simply to problems of language involving grammar and syntax, as shown in his ‘language games’. Here, logic is king and mathematical precision can be used to solve formerly insoluble problems. This conclusion is useful in some respects, but, I think, clearly lacks something substantial. Ethics and politics, for example. In his own life, Wittgenstein was a restless man of action who in a certain sense had no use for his own philosophical conclusions, rather embodying the maxim of primum vivere, deinde philosophari–“first one must live, then one may philosophize.”

Will Durant (1885-1981), from ‘Introduction’ to The Story of Philosophy (1926):

Every science begins as philosophy and ends as art: It arises in hypothesis and flows into achievement. Philosophy is a hypothetical interpretation of the unknown (as in metaphysics), or of the inexactly known (as in ethics or political philosophy). It is the front trench in the siege of truth. Science is the captured territory, and behind it are those secure regions in which knowledge and art build our imperfect and marvelous world. Philosophy seems to stand still, perplexed, but only because she leaves the fruits of victory to her daughters the sciences, and herself passes on, divinely discontent, to the uncertain and unexplored.

Shall we be more technical? Science is analytical description; philosophy is synthetic interpretation. Science wishes to resolve the whole into parts, the organism into organs, the obscure into the known. It does not inquire into the values and ideal possibilities of things or into their total and final significance. It is content to show their present actuality and operation. It narrows its gaze resolutely to the nature and process of things as they are.

The scientist is as impartial as Nature in Turgenev’s poem: He is as interested in the leg of a flea as in the creative throes of a genius. But the philosopher is not content to describe the fact. He wishes to ascertain its relation to experience in general and thereby to get at its meaning and its worth. He combines things in interpretive synthesis. He tries to put together, better than before, that great universe-watch which the inquisitive scientist has analytically taken apart.

Science tell us how to heal and how to kill. It reduces the death rate in retail and then kills us wholesale in war. But only wisdom — desire coordinated in the light of all experience — can tell us when to heal and. when to kill. To observe processes and to construct means is science. To criticize and coordinate ends is philosophy. And because in these days our means and instruments have multiplied beyond our interpretation and synthesis of ideals and ends, our life is “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” For a fact is nothing except in relation to desire. It is not complete except in relation to a purpose and a whole. Science without philosophy, facts without perspective and valuation, cannot save us from havoc and despair. Science gives us knowledge, but only philosophy can give us wisdom.

Durant continues by listing the five fields of philosophical study and discourse: logic, aesthetics, ethics, politics, and metaphysics. Logic, though it has been instrumental in improving methods of thinking and research, has been relocated, since the developments of Frege, Cantor, and Russell and Whitehead, into the field of pure science and mathematics. Aesthetics is the most subjective of the five fields, and ultimately finds a better fit in the area of psychology rather than philosophy. According to Durant, ontology (the study of ‘being’) and epistemology (the study of knowledge) are subsets of metaphysics. Epistemology, which must now be considered within the province of neuroscience, was unapologetically neglected by Durant except in the chapter on Kant, and it was, he claims, “largely responsible for the decadence of philosophy” in the 19th century by the followers of Kant. I happily concur with Durant on this point. I also find it more than mere coincidence that one of the few points of convergence between the Analytic and Continental traditions is the insignificance or total irrelevance of metaphysics in modern philosophy.

There remain only two fields of interest, then, that are applicable, in theory and in practice, to the modern, non-scientific but practical-minded philosopher: ethics and politics. The former is “the study of ideal conduct”, which emphasizes especially individual behavior (How should we act?); the latter is “the study of ideal social organization”, and, thus, focuses on the role of individuals within society (What kind of government should we have? What is freedom?).

I have chosen to conclude with the wonderful prose excerpt from Durant because, in this case, on the definition of philosophy and its uses, I agree with his position that philosophy is necessary to synthesize knowledge from diverse areas into something understandable.

Here is a shorter version of the same idea from the article “What is Philosophy?”:

We shall define philosophy as “total perspective,” as mind overspreading life and forging chaos into unity… Philosophy is harmonized knowledge making a harmonious life; it is the self-discipline which leads us to security and freedom. Knowledge is power, but only wisdom is liberty.

And here is an examination of the idea of ‘wisdom’ from the article “What is Wisdom?” (1957):

The first lesson of philosophy is that philosophy is the study of any part of experience in the light of our whole experience; the second lesson is that the philosopher is a very small part in a very large whole. Just as philosopher means not a “possessor” but a “lover” of wisdom, so we can only seek wisdom devotedly, like a lover fated, as on Keats’ Grecian urn, never to possess, but only to desire. Perhaps it is more blessed to desire than to possess.

Bertrand Russell on Plato and Aristotle

Bertrand Russell, 3rd Earl Russell, 1872-1970.

Bertrand Russell must be considered, by any standards, one of the greatest intellectuals and human beings of the 20th century. Upon completing his magisterial A History of Western Philosophy, one can also understand why he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1950, chiefly for this work– the citation states that the award was “in recognition of his varied and significant writings in which he champions humanitarian ideals and freedom of thought.” These varied writings consist of more than 90 published works in philosophy, logic, mathematics, political theory, education, and social commentary over the course of 74 years, until his death at the age of 97. The details of his life are equally varied and significant, though I will only provide here a couple of my favorite anecdotes. He was the godchild of John Stuart Mill (whom I discussed here), orphaned by the age of 6, and raised by his grandfather who was the former Prime Minister (and who had visited Napoleon on Elba!). He was one of the most important founders of the Analytic school of philosophy, along with his brilliant student Ludwig Wittgenstein, and attempted to provide a mathematical and logical solution for all problems of philosophy. He was imprisoned during World War I for pacifism, which did not stop him from receiving the Order of Merit from the King 30 years later. He co-authored the Russell-Einstein manifesto of 1955 calling for nuclear disarmament, and remained an anti-war activist, especially in regards to Vietnam and the Israeli-Arab wars, until his last days. An online sample of some of his writings can be found here. Perhaps these opening lines from his autobiography, completed the year before his death, most eloquently encapsulate the man (video excerpt is here):

Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind. These passions, like great winds, have blown me hither and thither, in a wayward course, over a deep ocean of anguish, reaching to the very verge of despair… This has been my life. I have found it worth living, and would gladly live it again if the chance were offered me.

A History of Western Philosophy was written in the United States, which Russell had fled to while it was still neutral, in the last years of World War II, and it was published in 1945. Over the course of 76 chapters and 836 pages it traces the history and evolution of ideas from early Babylonians and Egyptians to the Greeks and on to the 20th century (ending with a justification for his own school of logical analysis). Divided into three large sections, the longest and most comprehensive is “Ancient Philosophy”, the shortest and most tedious is the medieval “Catholic Philosophy”, and the most interesting is, in my opinion, “Modern Philosophy”. The strengths of the work include not only its great “clarity, erudition, grace, and wit”, but also the historical context and continuity derived from a single-volume work that sheds light on the influences and origins of modern ideas, as well as the useful commentary by the author, an eminent philosopher in his own right. Its weaknesses include its cursory treatment or outright omission of certain philosophers (mostly in the section on “Modern Philosophy”–Kierkegaard is famously not mentioned, nor is Pascal; and unfortunately Husserl’s Phenomenology and Heidegger’s and Sartre’s Existentialism seem to have been too recent; curiously, Russell’s student and friend Wittgenstein is unnamed in the final chapter on the Analytics), as well as his highly partisan treatment against many philosophers (especially those in the Continental tradition from Rousseau to Kant to Nietzsche).

In this post, I intend only to highlight some examples of Russell’s witty and useful commentary on those most influential of all ancient philosophers– Plato and Aristotle. Russell provides a concise summary of the thoughts of both of these men, as well as painting a picture as to why they are so important, despite being wrong about almost everything. To begin, I will give some context from his chapter on the pre-Socratic atomists, such as Democritus (whom I wrote about here), as well as from the chapter on Protagoras, a sophist and subject of one of Plato’s dialogues.

The Atomists

Democritus– such, at least, is my opinion– is the last of the Greek philosophers to be free from a certain fault which vitiated all later ancient and medieval thought… From this point onwards, there are first certain seeds of decay, in spite of previously unmatched achievement, and then a gradual decadence. What is amiss, even in the best philosophy after Democritus, is an undue emphasis on man as compared with the universe. First comes scepticism, with the Sophists, leading to a study of how we know rather than to the attempt to acquire fresh knowledge. Then comes, with Socrates, the emphasis on ethics; with Plato, the rejection of the world of sense in favour of the self-created world of pure thought; with Aristotle, the belief in purpose as the fundamental concept in science. In spite of the genius of Plato and Aristotle, their thought has vices which proved infinitely harmful. After their time, there was a decay of vigour, and a gradual recrudescence of popular superstition. A partially new outlook arose as a result of the victory of Catholic orthodoxy; but it was not until the Renaissance that philosophy regained the vigour and independence that characterize the predecessors of Socrates.


Plato is always concerned to advocate views that will make people what he thinks virtuous; he is hardly ever intellectually honest, because he allows himself to judge doctrines by their social consequences. Even about this he is not honest; he pretends to follow the argument and to be judging by purely theoretical standards, when in fact he is twisting the discussion so as to lead to a virtuous result. He introduced this vice into philosophy, where it has persisted ever since. It was probably largely hostility to the Sophists that gave this character to his dialogues. One of the defects of all philosophers since Plato is that their inquiries into ethics proceed on the assumption that they already know the conclusions to be reached.

The Sources of Plato’s Opinions


Plato possessed the art to dress up illiberal suggestions in such a way that they deceived future ages, which admired the Republic without ever becoming aware of what was involved in its proposals. It has always been correct to praise Plato, but not to understand him. This is the common fate of great men. My object is the opposite. I wish to understand him, but to treat him with as little reverence as if he were a contemporary English or American advocate of totalitarianism.

Plato’s Utopia

When we ask: what will Plato’s Republic achieve? The answer is rather humdrum. It will achieve success in wars against roughly equal populations, and it will secure a livelihood for a certain small number of people. It will almost certainly produce no art or science, because of its rigidity; in this respect, as in others, it will be like Sparta. In spite of all the fine talk, skill in war and enough to eat is all that will be achieved. Plato had lived through famine and defeat in Athens; perhaps, subconsciously, he thought the avoidance of these evils the best that statesmanship could accomplish.

The Theory of Ideas

Plato is perpetually getting into trouble through not understanding relative terms. He thinks that if A is greater than B and less than C, then A is at once great and small, which seems to him a contradiction. Such troubles are among the infantile diseases of philosophy.

The belief in the good as the key to the scientific understanding of the world was useful, at a certain stage, in astronomy, but at every later stage it was harmful. The ethical and aesthetic bias of Plato, and still more of Aristotle, did much to kill Greek science.

Plato’s Theory of Immortality

The Platonic Socrates was a pattern to subsequent philosophers for many ages. What are we to think of him ethically? His merits are obvious. He is indifferent to worldly success, so devoid of fear that he remains calm and urbane and humourous to the last moment, caring more for what he believes to be truth than for anything else whatever. He has, however, some very grave defects. He is dishonest and sophistical in argument, and in his private thinking he uses intellect to prove conclusions that are to him agreeable, rather than in a disinterested search for knowledge. There is something smug and unctuous about him, which reminds one of a bad type of cleric. His courage in the face of death would have been more remarkable if he had not believed that he was going to enjoy eternal bliss in the company of the gods. Unlike some of his predecessors, he was not scientific in his thinking, but was determined to prove the universe agreeable to his ethical standards. This is treachery to truth, and the worst of philosophic sins. As a man, we may believe him admitted to the communion of saints; but as a philosopher he needs a long residence in a scientific purgatory.

Plato’s Cosmogony

Plato’s cosmogony is set forth in the Timaeus, which was translated into Latin by Cicero, and was, in consequence, the only one of the dialogues that was known in the West in the Middle Ages… As philosophy, it is unimportant, but historically it was so influential that it must be considered in some detail.

It is difficult to know what to take seriously in the Timaeus, and what to regard as play of fancy.

Knowledge and Perception in Plato

All that Plato says about existence is bad grammar, or rather bad syntax. This point is important, not only in connection with Plato, but also with other matters such as the ontological argument for the existence of the Deity.

Plato, under the influence of the Pythagoreans, assimilated other knowledge too much to mathematics. He shared this mistake with many of the greatest philosophers, but it was a mistake none the less.

Aristotle’s Metaphysics

Aristotle’s metaphysics, roughly speaking, may be described as Plato diluted by common sense. He is difficult because Plato and common sense do not mix easily.

His doctrine on this point (theory of universals), as on many others, is a common-sense prejudice pedantically expressed.

Aristotle’s Ethics


This book (Nicomachean Ethics) appeals to the respectable middle-aged, and has been used by them, especially since the seventeenth century, to repress the ardours and enthusiasms of the young. But to a man with any depth of feeling it cannot but be repulsive.

There is in Aristotle an almost complete absence of what may be called benevolence or philanthropy. The sufferings of mankind, in so far as he is aware of them, do not move him emotionally… More generally, there is an emotional poverty in the Ethics, which is not found in the earlier philosophers. There is something unduly smug and comfortable about Aristotle’s speculations on human affairs; everything that makes men feel a passionate interest in each other seems to be forgotten. Even his account of friendship is tepid… For these reasons, in my judgment, his Ethics, in spite of its fame, is lacking in intrinsic importance.

Aristotle’s Politics

Plato’s communism annoys Aristotle. It would lead, he says, to anger against lazy people, and to the sort of quarrels that are common between fellow-travellers. It is better if each minds his own business. Property should be private, but people should be so trained in benevolence as to allow the use of it to be largely common… Finally we are told that, if Plato’s plans were good, someone would have thought of them sooner. I do not agree with Plato, but if anything could make me do so, it would be Aristotle’s arguments against him.

Aristotle concludes that there is no wickedness too great for a tyrant. There is, however, he says, another method of preserving a tyranny, namely by moderation and by seeming religious. There is no decision as to which method is likely to prove the more successful.

Aristotle’s fundamental assumptions, in his Politics, are very different from those of any modern writer. The aim of the State, in his view, is to produce cultured gentlemen– men who combine the aristocratic mentality with love of learning and the arts… Various forces have put an end to this state of affairs (government by cultured gentlemen). First, democracy, as embodied by the French Revolution and its aftermath. The cultured gentlemen, as after the age of Pericles, had to defend their privileges against the populace, and in the process ceased to be either gentlemen or cultured. A second cause was the rise of industrialism, with a scientific technique very different from traditional culture. A third cause was popular education, which conferred the power to read and write, but did not confer culture; this enabled a new type of demagogue to practice a new type of propaganda, as seen in the dictatorships. Both for good and evil, therefore, the day of the cultured gentleman is past.

Aristotle’s Logic

I conclude that the Aristotelian doctrines with which we have been concerned in this chapter are wholly false, with the exception of the formal theory of the syllogism, which is unimportant. Any person in the present day who wishes to learn logic will be wasting his time if he reads Aristotle or any of his disciples. None the less, Aristotle’s logical writings show great ability, and would have been useful to mankind if they had appeared at a time when intellectual originality was still active. Unfortunately, they appeared at the very end of the creative period of Greek thought, and therefore came to be accepted as authoritative.

Aristotle’s Physics

Words such as “quintessence” and “sublunary” are derived from the theories expressed in these books (Physics and On the Heavens). The historian of philosophy, accordingly, must study them, in spite of the fact that hardly a sentence in either can be accepted in the light of modern science.

Finally: The view that the heavenly bodies are eternal and incorruptible has had to be abandoned. The sun and stars have long lives, but do not live for ever. They are born from a nebula, and in the end they either explode or die of cold. Nothing in the visible world is exempt from change and decay; the Aristotelian belief to the contrary, though accepted by medieval Christians, is a product of the pagan worship of sun and moon and planets.

Raphael’s “School of Athens”. Plato is holding the Timaeus and Aristotle the Nichomachean Ethics.

God:Big Bang::Chicken:Egg?

Last week, three scientists were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for their 1998 discovery that the expansion of the universe is accelerating. This overturned the conventional idea that the universe, at this point in time 13.72 billion years after the Big Bang, was actually slowing down due to its own gravity. Below, you will find a presentation from 2009 by theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss, called “A Universe from Nothing.” To help put this information in context, I will explain the ‘cosmological argument’ for the existence of God, which it may be useful to read before the video. Then I will attempt to discuss some of the philosophical ramifications of this discovery, as I understand them.

Why is there something rather than nothing? This is the fundamental question at the heart of the cosmological argument. Like much philosophy, it dates back at least as far as Plato and Aristotle. The former, in Timaeus, posited that a supremely wise ‘demiurge’ had created the cosmos; the latter, in Metaphysics, asserted there was no first cause, or ‘prime mover’, because the universe was eternal. This was consistent with the statement of the pre-Socratic Parmenides, “nothing comes from nothing.” The rest of the history of the argument has mostly been dominated by Christian thinkers, such as Thomas Aquinas, who simply concluded that the universe need not be seen as eternal, because God was the original prime mover. We now know that the universe certainly is not eternal, and we know exactly when it began to exist (after the Big Bang). So, the cosmological argument can seem rather intuitive from a certain points of view:

  1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause
  2. The universe began to exist.
  3. Therefore, the universe had a cause.
It goes without saying that there are many objections to these apparently logical assertions, as well as various versions of the argument (in fact, the differences between these versions has led to it being defined more as a ‘method’ than a specific argument).
  • For starters, a skeptic would not hesitate to make the most obvious objection: “what caused the first cause?”. This also highlights the biggest problem with the entire argument itself–that it depends on some type of causality understood either through deductive (logically necessary) or inductive (gained by experience) reasoning. Basically, our knowledge and ability to understand phenomena is based on our experience as humans on planet Earth, but the same rules of causality may not apply to an unknowingly-vast universe with properties we cannot yet measure or even observe.
  • Secondly, it follows that even if there were a First Cause of the universe that initiated the Big Bang, we have no way of knowing if it was the work of God. The First Cause in this case could also conceivably be some other ‘spark’–this is the central point discussed in the video above. Furthermore, even if it could be demonstrated that God had created the universe (which I think we must understand as ‘causing the Big Bang to occur’), it is still a quite different question to connect this creator God with the God of religions throughout the world. We would be left with the ‘Deist’ God, popular with Enlightenment thinkers, who merely created the universe but then ceased to interact or manifest itself with this creation in any way.
  • It is difficult to imagine these abstract concepts, and the huge time spans required to understand them (once again, the universe is 13.72 billion years old). Therefore, it is virtually impossible to conceive of an idea such as “what existed before the Big Bang?”. Science, led by physicists such as Krauss, attempts to answer this by explaining that there was simply ‘nothing’. Since time came into being as one of the dimensions of existence, whatever there was before the Big Bang was effectively ‘timeless’. Krauss presents the case for why the old question of “why is there something rather than nothing” can actually be understood through quantum physics. He explains that something can come from nothing, and, in fact, always does. Science, despite occasional errors (which are eventually discovered and corrected), explains the world and the universe around us as we experience it or can logically deduce it. Sometimes the knowledge it presents to us can, nevertheless, be open to varying interpretations of a metaphysical type.  Krauss himself admits as much at the 11:40 mark of the video, when he summarizes Belgian priest/physicist Georges Lemaître’s (discover of the ‘Big Bang’) letter to the Pope as such: “This is a scientific theory.  You can take it, if you believe in God, to validate your beliefs. But you could also take it to mean that the laws of physics take us right back to the beginning of time without God. What you take from it depends upon your religious and metaphysical beliefs…but whatever you say, the Big Bang happened. If we could just convince people of this simple thing…we could probably overcome a lot of problems in this country.”
  • Dark matter and dark energy have never been observed. According to my understanding of things, even such possible (and probable) future discoveries will not change the fundamental philosophical or religious arguments and search for proof of the existence (or non-existence) of God. Theists could just as easily explain dark energy as ‘God’s hand’ in the universe, while atheists would take it as ever more proof building up their case that no deity is necessary in order for the universe to work, or even for setting events into motion. In addition, theists who attempt to insert the presence of God into any realms of science that are as yet unknown are making a grave strategic error. This “God of the Gaps” concept risks painting the idea of a deity into an ever smaller corner, as new scientific discoveries will inevitably continue to explain away the mystery. For example, it is only the most remote tribes without knowledge of modern germ theory who still attribute superstitious causes to illness and disease. It is still common for politicians and religious leaders to interpret for their constituencies the divine meaning of various meteorological events (Texas governor Rick Perry thinks Texas is suffering from enormous wildfires and drought because of the Federal Reserve…then why did they strike Texas rather than New York?).
  • My desire is that we respect science and actively discredit anyone who rejects it if it does not fit their own personal beliefs (or financial gain, in the case of industrial polluters spreading rampant climate change denialism). Ultimately though, we still must understand and interpret things beyond the facts that science gives us, and here we must use philosophy and our ability to reason. This is our most advanced ability and the only thing that separates humans from non-human animals, as well as (as far as we can tell) everything else in the universe. If there is a God, it would surely intend us to use our ‘God-given’ reason to question the nature of things and why we find no evidence for God in the universe. Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but not to their own facts.

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