September 2010

What is the nature of reality? Where did all this come from? Did the universe need a creator?… Traditionally, these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge. – Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design[i]

In his new book The Grand Design, Stephen Hawking, together with co-author Leonard Mlodinow, argue that the quest to find the answers to life’s biggest questions is no longer the charge of philosophers, but scientists.  But why would Hawking, a renowned physicist, sound the death knell for a field of study that he has no expertise in?

Ultimately, Hawking understands the history of intellectual discovery as a progression from mythology, through philosophy, and finally to science.  On his view, philosophy was a step in the right direction in that it involved a rational attempt to make sense of the universe.   That rational attempt to understand the universe, however, often goes wrong.  For instance, Hawking points to the disagreements among ancient Greek philosophers for whom, “there was no objective way to settle the argument” because they didn’t yet have the scientific method.[ii] Moreover, philosophers are stuck with a classical view of the world and have not “kept up” with modern physics.  According to the classical view, objects exist at one place at one time and every object has a definite history.  But these views are not true, at least on the atomic level.  Quantum mechanics implies that subatomic particles behave in ways that, according to the classical view, are impossible, seemingly popping in and out of existence as we observe them.

Hawking paints a picture of a world where life’s biggest questions are finally being understood by physicists.  Our universe is merely a quantum fluctuation that resulted in a specific set of physical laws, but is only one of many universes in the “multiverse.”  What is more, our understanding of quantum mechanics and general relativity allow physicists like Hawking to claim that there was “no beginning of time” and therefore no need for a God to start the chain of causation:

The issue of the beginning of time is a bit like the issue of the edge of the world. When people thought the world was flat, one might have wondered whether the sea poured over its edge…. Time, however, seemed to be like a model railway track. If it had a beginning, there would have to be someone (i.e. God) to set the trains going…. However, once we add the effects of quantum theory to the theory of relativity, in extreme cases [like the Big Bang] warpage can occur to such a great extent that time behaves like another dimension of space.[iii]

On this view, time, like the shape of the earth, is not “flat” but “curved” in such a way that the concept of the “beginning of the temporal series” makes as much sense as the concept of the “edge of the world.”  For Hawking, this implies the multiverse is a closed system which does not need any explanation from outside of itself.  As Ockham’s razor suggests, where there is no need to posit the existence of a supernatural being, one should not.  The universe, then, is simply the product of purely physical laws.  Hawking claims, then, that physics is finally providing answers to three historically philosophical questions:  “Why is there something rather than nothing? Why do we exist? Why this particular set of laws and not some other?”[iv] Given this new role for physics, philosophy is not so much dead as it is obsolete.

But, has Hawking really shown that philosophy is obsolete?  I think not.   A charitable reading of The Grand Design would grant Hawking the point that philosophers need to take some of the more bizarre implications of modern physics seriously.  But there are a number of philosophers who do take science seriously and attempt to base their arguments on firm empirical grounds.  Perhaps Hawking hasn’t spent a lot of time with his colleagues in the department of philosophy at Cambridge.

But the best interpretation of Hawking’s arguments, I would argue, is that he himself is doing philosophy in this book.  One common way of distinguishing philosophy from science is this.  Science attempts to use observation and mathematics to discover the empirical truths of the world (i.e. the underlying physical laws, states, and processes) while philosophy , attempts to draw rational non-empirical conclusions from empirical, logical, or other basic truths.  As soon as Hawking begins to infer non-empirical conclusions from quantum mechanics and general relativity, he is in effect, practicing philosophy.  And, just as the philosopher would be required to empirically verify or experimentally test any empirical conclusions he or she makes, Hawking is subject to the methods and measures of good philosophy when he engages in philosophy.

The Grand Design is an excellent book in that it explains cutting edge physics in a way that is understandable for the layman and because it provokes a number of important philosophical questions.  One should be weary, however, when interpreting his conclusions.  As with any argument from authority, we should trust it only when it pertains to the author’s domain of authority.  When your pharmacist tells you not to take medications A and B together because they will have an unfortunate side effect, we should trust that advice.  When your pharmacist tells you to vote for candidate C because of that candidate’s economic policies, we have no reason to trust that advice.  Hawking is, by all accounts, one of the most brilliant scientific minds living today.  Nonetheless, many of the philosophical conclusions in The Grand Design are not empirically verifiable, but rest on philosophical assumptions such as “model-dependent realism” which could certainly be false.   We should trust the scientific claims made in the book, but question the philosophical ones.  Philosophy is not dead, but very much alive, as demonstrated by Hawking himself in the book and hopefully by the reader as he or she reads it.

[i] Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design (New York: Random House, 2010), 5.

[ii] Ibid, 22.

[iii] Ibid, 134.

[iv] Ibid, 10.

Serena McGushin

of the Philosophy Department at the University of Connecticut

Hannah Arendt on Conscience, Judgment, and Human Rights

Philosophy Colloquium Delivered at Saint Anselm College on September 22, 2010.

Hannah Arendt on Conscience, Judgment, and Human Rights

Click above to listen or right click to download.

“Forgiveness is the triumph of future over past.”

The world is always starting over for us. Out attention shifts from one thing to another; after a good night’s sleep the sun shines again; Spring restores a world of life and growth from the ravages of Winter; a new year presents new possibilities. These recurrences punctuate our lives, breaking them up into units that can appear separate and self-contained; each a chance to start anew.  But all of the things that matter in human life take time, extending over boundaries, tying moments together into meaningful wholes:  Our attention is focused on the melody of a piece of music, carrying us over the interstices of moments and making a unit of them. A project or a relationship gives unity to our days, giving each meaning by what it contributes to the next. A marriage or a career or a family tie our years together, making them amount to something besides the passage of astronomical units that come and pass like the leaves blowing across the forest floor. Which of these is forgiveness like? Is it a fresh start that distances us from the past, leaving it behind, forgotten, or is it like learning to sing a new song, one that weaves in the past, but in a new way.

We like to think of wiping the slate clean, of making a fresh start for the same reason that doing so is often so difficult. ( We long to be free from our pasts, and it is only our pasts that provide us with reasons for doing anything. We long to be an isolated instant of time with a will all-powerful to make ourselves anew at each moment. But the objects of our will, of our loves and cares, are always outside of us, binding us to objects and their futures. The freedom we have within an instant is always sterile and empty, perishing with the passing of that moment. The fact is, we are always in the middle of things. We never really start over. We are always spinning through time on the momentum of our past loves and hates, on the trajectories of triumphs and failures, careening into the future along the paths we have made for ourselves and that define us. If we started from nothing, began from nowhere, there would be nothing to get us started and nowhere to go. We are lucky that there are no fresh starts, no reset buttons for our lives.

Forgiveness is not forgetting. We sometimes hear that real forgiveness erases our sins, as if they had never occurred, and we often find it difficult to bring ourselves to the purity of such a forgiveness, or to even understand how we could make ourselves forget so completely. But we really don’t want to forget in this way. The love that makes us want to forgive and the love that made us feel harm are one and the same. Can a mother forget the murder of a child without erasing the child and erasing the very impulse to love that fuels forgiveness. Forgiveness is continuing to care about those who have harmed the things we cared about. You don’t forgive by erasing the harms and cares of the past.

To forgive, one must keep before us the harm we wish to overcome with love. When we ask for forgiveness, we do not wish amnesia on the person we have harmed. We want them to see us, in all our faults, and still find a place for us (not an edited version of us) in their hearts. The natural world has a lesson to teach us about forgiveness here. We do not want to erase the persistent essences of things and start the world over anew. We want the sun to shine as it always has, the green of the grass to glow in its light, and the evanescent clouds to shine in its constant light always and forever the same. And God’s forgiveness is nowhere shown to us as clearly in the independent functioning of eternal objects. No matter who I’ve become or what I’ve done, these things will remain the same for me, if I only retain the courage to accept and respond to them. No matter how inexplicable it may be that the sun shines still for the likes of me, the world, at each instant, welcomes me into its future just as it always has, for saint and sinner alike.

In the same way, unconditional love, does not ignore our faults and transgressions, but refuses to cut us off, dwelling forever in the past with them. In its essence, love, too, exists in time, always seeing more in our futures than our pasts can contain. Despite our transgressions, the infinite value of our individuality still functions independently, calling us to a future that transcends our sins. To love someone even in their sins is not to love their sins, but to see that person as not contained in the past, to see them always with a trajectory towards the future, living in hope that the good in them will function always and everywhere the same and fulfill itself in their future. Forgiveness sees clearly and feels clearly the harms of the past, but draws the transgressor back into our future in hopes that they will be more than their past. It does not start over with a clean slate, but writes a new story and sings a new song, in which our sins are not the end of the story. Forgiveness is the triumph of future over past.

“There have been about 106 billion human lives in this unlikely universe, of which about 7 billion are going on now, about 5.8 percent.  Of these, 80% live in abject poverty, with an even larger proportion of those who lived in the past, leading even more miserable lives, subject to the worst kinds of pains, fears, and misfortunes.”  –Professor David Banach, Philosophy Blog, “Do You Feel Lucky?” 17 January 10

A classic problem in the history of philosophy in the Christian West has been the problem of evil, which arises because the existence of evil that we and others experience is seen to be incompatible with the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent God.  There would be no philosophical problem of evil, that is to say, if the existence of a perfect creator God had not been accepted.  In any exposition of this problem, therefore, the existence of such a God must be taken as a given.  The non-existence of such a God could be proposed as a solution to the problem of evil, as a conclusion of the discussion, but this cannot be a starting point for posing the problem.  By the same token, the existence of evil in the world, based on our experience of it, must be taken as a given in posing the problem, otherwise the problem itself disappears.  The evil we experience, of course, is something we think should not exist, but again, to show somehow that it does not really exist is not to pose the problem but rather to attempt to solve it.  In order to acknowledge the existence of experienced evil, and to know that it should not exist, however, we must employ some concept of the good that we have experienced in this world, the good, presumably, that we think there should be more of.  So it is essential in discussing the problem of evil that we acknowledge the existence of experienced good, and not just the alleged transcendent goodness of God, or God’s omnibenevolence.

In posing the problem of evil we naturally make use of these three concepts:  the concept of experienced evil; the concept of an infinitely perfect God; and the concept of experienced good.  One can “solve” the problem of evil by denying the existence of such a God (as is done in atheism and in theories of God’s imperfection), or by denying the existence of evil (as is done by privation theories of evil).  But it seems to be an odd fact about the logic of this problem that nothing is gained towards its solution by denying the existence of experienced good, as distinct from God’s omnibenevolence.  Even if we deny God’s goodness in order to solve the problem, that is, we are left with the goods of our experience which we cannot deny, and which actually become hard to acknowledge if we adopt some of the standard solutions to the problem of evil.

Suppose I wonder why people get sick and die in pain if God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent.  It surely seems incompatible with God’s alleged perfection that God’s children be allowed to suffer and perish this way.  To solve the difficulty, several options are open to me.  1) I may simply conclude that God either does not exist, or somehow cannot prevent, or does not know about, or does not care about this situation.  2) I may make the greater effort and try to explain how sickness, suffering and death are not irredeemably evil, either because they are privations of the good for which God is not culpable, or because they are indispensable to greater goods in the end (in the afterlife, say), or because they are outweighed by the goods of this life.  Most philosophical solutions to the problem of evil fall under one or the other of these two headings.  We rarely, if ever, see anything like this third option:  3) the good that we experience in life is unreal or illusory, like a fleeting privation of evil, and so the incompatibility between God’s transcendent perfection and the experience of evil disappears.  This would be like saying that sickness, suffering, and death are simply what human existence consists in, and so God’s perfection escapes unscathed.  God created us to suffer, and that’s an end of the matter.  There was nothing good about this life in the first place.  I cannot think of a single philosopher who has seriously proposed this as a solution to the problem of evil, though something like this view can be found in certain Sicilian writers of fiction.

It is common when claiming that the evil in this world outweighs (or defeats) the good, to hold that the good is insignificant by comparison with the evil.  Yet it is not clear to me that this is actually true.  As the 19th century philosopher, Franz Brentano, pointed out, the evils we are familiar with are in fact ontologically dependent on something good.  For instance, there would be no death without life, but life is good.  There would be no pain without some type of consciousness, but consciousness is good.  There would be no ignorance or error without some kind of thought, but thought is good.  There would be no love or hate without some kind of fairly complicated mental life, which itself is a good thing.  And so on.  Brentano held that some goods are “indefeasible,” that is, no evil can outweigh or defeat them, and he included on this list life, consciousness, thought, knowledge, and what he called correct love and hate (allowing for the fact that we should hate evil and love the good).  We do not need to follow Brentano all the way to his conclusion, however, in order to see some reason for hesitation concerning the claim that the good in this world is insignificant by comparison with the evil.  In other words, although Brentano was interested in producing a complete theodicy, a full solution to the traditional problem of evil, it is not necessary that we consider the problem solved.  What is necessary, though, in my opinion, is that we acknowledge that there is a sense in which “the problem of good” can become just as intractable as the problem of evil.

The problem of good arises when we accept certain kinds of solutions to the problem of evil.  For instance, when we say there is no creator God and affirm that our existence in this world is purely accidental or the result of blind forces, then to be consistent we have to hold also that those things we value—life, consciousness, knowledge, love—are valuable only sometimes or only to us but not inherently or intrinsically so.  Perhaps knowledge promotes our survival or our pleasure, for instance, which is a good to us, but which cannot be considered good in itself or intrinsically valuable in any objective sense.  This is not what we mean, though, when we say that those who live, are conscious, know, or love are good in themselves.  We do not mean merely that they are good as means, or that they have value as a merely human invention, like underwear; we mean that they are good as such or as ends, i.e., intrinsically good.  But it seems incompatible with the concept of an intrinsic good that its goodness be merely instrumental or subjective, just good for us, since intrinsic goods are inherently such that their very existence is objectively and correctly to be preferred to their non-existence regardless of our viewpoint.

On the other hand, if we say that evil is merely a privation of the good, and God is responsible only for the good, while this “solves” the problem of evil, it leaves us with a fresh version of the problem of good, namely, the arbitrariness of holding that experienced evil is not a positive reality.  Why not hold that experienced good is not a positive reality, since both evil and good are equally real parts of our lived experience?  Yet not only do we find it difficult to hold that evil is unreal, we also find it difficult to hold that good is unreal, not only because we are far too attached to it for that (both when faced with its absence and when graced by its presence), but more importantly because the reality of evil and injustice depends on the good being objectively real.  For example, if I decry the pain and suffering of untold numbers of humans and other animals, I implicitly acknowledge their underlying goodness as intrinsically valuable beings who ought to exist (at least at some time) and ought not to suffer (at least not for no good reason).  In Brentano’s terms, I correctly hate their suffering precisely because their existence is correctly to be preferred to their non-existence in an absolute sense, which is to say, because they are intrinsically good.  Or to take another kind of example, if I love and value a person—a parent, spouse, child, or friend—part of this experience is gratitude for the person’s very existence; but such gratitude involves awareness of the existence of an undeniable, intrinsic good—this person—whom, in Brentano’s terms, I correctly love.  Either way, the problem of good appears to be just as difficult as the problem of evil, when it arises as a consequence of trying to solve the problem of evil.  In sum, it appears that I can hold, for instance, either that human life has objective, intrinsic value or that human life is valuable only to humans (and possibly to their predators), but not both.

There may be no adequate philosophical solution to the problem of evil.  It may be that the problem of evil remains intractable on the traditional theistic view, but at the same time the problem of good remains intractable on what has become the standard atheistic view.  In any event, it pays to recognize the inconsistency in our intuitions about these matters, regardless which side we lean towards:  as theists, we are prone to discount the evil in the world and focus mainly on the good, but as atheists we are prone to the reverse—discounting the good.