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Betty asked:

Hello! I am a philosophical Luddite so please excuse my lack of correct language or whatever…

I’ve been doing some rather tangential research for an art project and I keep hitting things like — the cosmic egg and Phanes, Ouroboros, cosmological pessimism, anthropocentrism etc. This had led to me to marvel at the idea that, the two most solid truths for an anthropocene are Birth and Death, conversely, the two most popular unanswered queries when investigating the cosmos or non-human existence is; the Big Bang and the Black Hole. I’m interested in the symmetry and wondering if there is a particular tract of study that examines these things as a unity of opposites or sumfin sumfin? I’m not sure if this makes sense…

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

The notion of a ‘unity of opposites’ first appeared in Presocratic philosophy with the thinker Heraclitus. Hegel’s dialectic is distantly inspired by Heraclitus, and in turn inspired Marx’s dialectical materialism and — possibly most interesting from your point of view — the Dialectics of Nature (1883) of Friedrich Engels. That may be what you are looking for.

I’m not really into that stuff (dialectics, dialectical logic etc.) but like you I do see the idea of a birth and death of the Cosmos, and the birth and death of the individual as being linked, although I wouldn’t use the term ‘identity’ or ‘unity’.

Whatever else you say or believe about it, the Cosmos, our ‘universe’, is contingent. The idea of a ‘beginning in time’ as this is normally conceived may be a red herring (if time comes into existence along with the Cosmos, see Hawking A Brief History of Time) but two things we do know are that: (1) assuming a Big Bang, there is the contingent possibility if not the necessity of a Big Crunch (or ‘Black Hole’ as you call it), (2) the Big Bang could have banged differently, it is a contingent fact that it banged in exactly the way it did — in order to produce this Earth, your question, my answer etc. etc.

For anyone with a sense of reality, contingency is anathema. Einstein, commenting on Niels Bohr’s ‘Copenhagen’ interpretation of quantum mechanics, famously said that ‘God does not play dice with the universe’. Whatever is, in the ultimate sense, cannot be intrinsically random. That, in essence, is the motivation for the Cosmological Argument for the existence of God.

As an atheist, I’m not the least bit tempted by the God theory. But nor do I think that Einstein was necessarily appealing to the existence of God when he made his comment. Even if he was a believer, that was not the point. Einstein was expressing an intuition: the intuition that whatever is, in the ultimate sense, cannot be contingent and must be necessary.

According to the God theory, this universe is necessary because, in the words of the philosopher Leibniz, it is the ‘best of all possible worlds’. God, being all-powerful, all-knowing and all-good could not have created any other universe than the one He did create. On the no-God theory, the only candidate I can see for a ‘necessary universe’ is the sum total of all possible worlds. All possible worlds are equally real, and this world of ours is just one of the uncountably many possible worlds. (See David Lewis On the Plurality of Worlds.)

Problem is, that doesn’t get us off the hook of contingency. And this is where you and I come in. Your existence is an extraordinary, fantastic accident. As is mine. Even if we assume the extraordinary accident that a habitable planet came into being and moreover life evolved eventually leading to the evolution of homo sapiens, the fact remains that in order for you or I to have been born, our parents had to meet — and their parents had to meet, and their parents and their parents all the way back to the emergence of life itself.

But here you are! and here I am!

If all possible worlds are real, one might well come to the conclusion that someone exactly like me — someone satisfying the totality of descriptions that apply to me — had to exist in some possible world. But why did I have to be that person? Why is there I in the world, rather than no I? That question is impossible to answer — or even coherently express — because I am the very one asking it.

What do you or I know about reality or ‘necessary existence’? I know that I exist, and whatever ways the world might have been (whatever possible worlds exist) this world is the actual world because I am in it. Full stop. And you can say the same. We are unutterably contingent, you and I. There is no link back to what is ultimately necessary, no possible explanation why there is I rather than no I, or you rather than no you.

Being contingent, there is nothing to prevent this universe, the actual world, coming to an end. And the same applies to you and me. Whatever discoveries may be made in the future that lead to the extension of human life, possibly its indefinite extension, you and I will die. Maybe sooner, maybe later.

But if you really think about it, the fact that you were born at all is as scary as the fact that you are going to die. Your two states of non-existence — before birth and after death — are indeed ‘the same’.

The mythical creature Ouroboros is a powerful, pungent image of self-sufficiency, the idea of a being that is not dependent on anything outside itself. It is, perhaps, the first or at least one of the earliest depictions of a neccessary being. It is also the stark opposite of what you and I are. We are fragile, contingent, dependent on external conditions, utterly unnecessary. There is no reason why we are here, just as there is no reason why our world is the way it is.

Learning to deal with that realization is the beginning of philosophy.

Kenny asked:

Who can explain why Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Islam and Christianity) are regarded as monotheistic religions whilst they recognise Satan/ Lucifer as an evil immortal powerful force (a god… an evil god). Is Satan/ Lucifer not part of the whole system of beliefs? These religions believe he exists and they believe he has power… an evil power. That means Lucifer is an enemy of their god (Divine being, High Spirit) he is an opposition, meaning he is a god himself. Then logically there are at least two gods in these religions.

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Over millennia, Lucifer has been regarded as the personification of evil, although the recent TV series ( has gone a long way to rehabilitate his image. Is Lucifer a man? a very powerful man? a kind of a god, maybe? What does it take to make a ‘god’?

Two and a half thousand years ago the Greek philosopher Xenophanes posed this question.  Possibly influenced by stories about a people who believed in one all-powerful God, he argued that the gods on Mount Olympus were too human-like to be worthy of worship.

One of Xenophanes’ arguments — which interestingly resembles the case made by Hobbes for a single Sovereign in Leviathan two millennia years later — is that if you have two or more gods their power is limited by the need to agree with one another on a course of action. The same argument presumably applies, with greater force, to two rival gods (a ‘good’ god and an ‘evil’ god) in permanent opposition to one another.

Traditional theology solves the problem by making the one God ‘infinite’ in power, knowledge and goodness. In a universe ruled by an infinite deity, a being such as Lucifer must necessarily play a subordinate role. He may have power to influence human beings but he exists only at God’s pleasure. An infinite being can snuff out a finite being in an instant.

So that would be one answer to your question.

However, from around the 20th century onwards, theology has become more equivocal on the nature of the one God, with some philosophers such as William James arguing for a deity who is finite in power, although still incapable of intentionally committing an evil act. Such a being would find itself in serious contention with a finitely powerful being who was willing, on occasion, to choose evil over good. (There’s no reason to go the whole hog and make Lucifer incapable of ever doing good. Why?)

Then, as you say, we would have two ‘gods’. But is either god on this scenario worthy of worship? You can cheer for your ‘God’ and boo Lucifer. Or, if you are that way inclined you can support Lucifer’s heroic resistance against a being who is simply ‘too good’ for the rest of us.

I don’t have a horse in this race. Make up any story you like. Maybe out there in the universe there are ‘good’ aliens who made us and ‘bad’ aliens who want to destroy us. Or maybe the ‘good’ aliens have gone ‘bad’ (as in Prometheus and Alien Covenant). It’s just a story, and stories are for children.

An argument for a finite god, which seems pretty strong to me, is that given that the universe is finite, any effect on the universe caused by a supposedly ‘infinite’ being can be matched by an effect caused by a sufficiently powerful finite being. The notion of ‘infinity’ is redundant. (This bears on the Teleological and Cosmological arguments: cf. Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion and Kant’s discussion of the arguments for the existence of God in his Critique of Pure Reason.)

The ontological argument, on the other hand, allegedly ‘proves’ the existence of an infinite being but I have yet to see a convincing version of it. If you are a believer of the traditional kind, or find the ontological argument convincing, then a question to ponder would be why such a God allows for the existence of Lucifer — which relates to the ‘Problem of Evil’.

But that’s another story.

Gerald asked:

Is the soul in the body or the body in the soul?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

The alternative you pose does not cover all the possibilities. The third option one has to consider (there may be more) is that there is no such thing as ‘soul’, only body.

However, for the sake of this question I will assume that we are not considering materialism as an alternative.

‘Soul in the body’ looks like dualism of the Cartesian variety. However, Descartes was quite explicit that what he termed ‘mental substance’ has none of the properties of ‘material substance’. In order to be located ‘in’ your body, your soul would have to possess the property of location in space. This cannot be, according to Descartes.

He is in fact scathing in his dismissal of the popular idea of the soul as ‘a breath of wind, a vapour’. The nearest equivalent to this idea is the Spiritualist notion of ‘ectoplasm’. You might have seen the black and white or sepia toned photographs of semi-transparent ‘sheets’ coming out of a human body. (Back then photography was a new science and the more gullible public were not aware of the possibility of tricks using double exposure.)

Prior to a proof of the existence of God who is ‘not a deceiver’, it is conceivable, Descartes says, that there might be no such thing as material substance. What appears as a ‘material world’ could just be a coherent dream produced by an ‘evil demon’. However, as there is a God, we can rest assured that what appears as a ‘material world’ really is so.

The Cartesian view would be that the experience of of my being located in this body, looking through these eyes, etc. is the result of interaction between my non-located mental substance (soul) and my material body. The locus of interaction, Descartes believed for obscure reasons, was the pineal gland.

What about the alternative, ‘body in the soul’? At first sight this looks nonsensical, but if we discard the notion of physical location, this perfectly fits the Berkeleian idealist theory of the soul as a ‘finite spirit’, taking in ‘ideas’ of material objects including the body, all contained in the one ‘infinite spirit’ or God.

Berkeley would say that, logically, there is nothing even an all-powerful God can do to ‘create’ a ‘real material world’, in addition to our reliable experience of being embodied and living in a world of material things. The very notion of ‘matter’ in the Cartesian sense is nonsensical.

According to Berkeley, God creates the idea of ‘my body’ as an ‘archetype’, while the ‘ectype’ or partial copy of that idea is contained in my conscious mind, along with ideas of all the other material objects in my environment. (The nearest analogy would be a 3-D computer game, where the subject exploring the virtual world — pursuing or being pursued by aliens, for example — is depicted on the screen either from the first-person or third-person point of view.)

So, who is it to be, Descartes or Berkeley?

If you are inclined to consider Occam’s Razor as relevant to metaphysics, then it does seem that Descartes’ ‘material substance’ has no meaningful role to play, other than as a guarantor that our ‘dream of a material world’ will continue sufficiently reliably to allow for the pursuit of science. The laws of nature will not change. We do not need to worry about ‘waking up’.

In response, Descartes would say that a Berkeleian world is one of perpetual deception. Why would God make us believe in the existence of matter, when in reality there is no such thing? Then again, wasn’t it Descartes himself who said that it was up to us to use our powers of judgement responsibly? And isn’t that precisely the point Berkeley wanted to make — that responsible reflection on the popular or philosophical (e.g. Lockean) notion of ‘matter’ shows that the very idea of such a thing is non-functional, a spinning wheel, otiose?

— If you believe in a ‘soul’, of course.

Minnie asked:

Why is there something instead of nothing? Is this a profound question or
is it as Richard Dawkins maintains a “senseless question”?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Hello, Minnie. Did you come across my recent blog post ‘The One’ discussing this question by any chance?

The short answer to your question is that ‘Why is there something instead of nothing?’ is both senseless and profound. It is profound because we don’t know exactly what sense to make of it. It’s senselessness is not patently obvious, not even if you have an IQ as high as that of Richard Dawkins.

When we think of the way things ‘might have been’ there is always an unspoken assumption about the vantage point from which one is asking the question. ‘Might I have been an astronaut?’ is a question that only makes sense on the assumption that I was in fact born and didn’t die in infancy. ‘Might the human race never have evolved?’ is a question which assumes the prior existence of life on Earth, which might have taken a different evolutionary turn from the one it actually took.

If you ask the question, ‘Might there have been nothing?’ what exactly does that assume? The best one can say here is that it assumes a ‘picture’ whose meaning is not altogether clear, a picture of a range of possibilities (or ‘possible worlds’) one of which is completely blank or empty. By definition, there is only one such possible world (if it is possible). In the same way, there is only one ‘null set’ in set theory.

But this is where things begin to get confusing. The null set (symbolized as { }) is definitely something and not nothing. It is a so-called ‘pure abstract object’, which exists in all possible worlds. You can construct a model for the natural numbers using the null set as a starting point. Just say that zero equals the null set, and any number n is the set of all numbers from 0 to n-1. So 1 is the set containing the null set, 2 is the set containing the null set, together with the set containing the null set, and so on.

So we need to sharpen the idea of the one possible world where ‘there is nothing’ to exclude abstract objects such as sets and numbers which exist in all possible worlds, including the one world where abstract objects are the only entities that exist. Let’s call this the world where there is ‘physically nothing’ (or maybe ‘physically and/ or mentally nothing’, if you’re tempted by idealism).

A world where there is physically nothing cannot be conceived as ’empty space’, even though it is tempting to do so. Isaac Newton thought of space as an infinite container, the ‘sensorium of God’. However, since Relativity that concept of space is no longer accepted. Space requires matter, there cannot be pure empty space.

Then again, if we are considering all possible worlds, then surely we should be considering worlds where the laws of nature are different from the way they are in the actual world? In that case, there’s a whole bunch of ‘possible Newtonian worlds’, in addition to a whole bunch of ‘possible Einsteinian worlds’.

So there is after all a possible Newtonian world where God’s sensorium is empty. But I almost forgot, you still have God. Or maybe this is the possible world in which He died?

All we are doing here is playing with pictures. The mental picture of an ’empty container’, for example. You might say that something undoubtedly does exist. Descartes would reply that lacking proof of God’s existence, we are not entitled to say for sure that that ‘something’ is physical. Maybe all there is, is me and the evil demon. But even in the evil demon scenario, there is something: my mental life, my experience of ‘seeming to exist in a world’. Suppose, in this scenario, I die. Then the evil demon dies. Then what?

In my blog post referred to above, I speculated about the meaning of Heidegger’s notorious statement, ‘Nothing noths.’ There seems to be something wrong with stating that a world where there is physically and mentally nothing ‘is’ a possible world. How can we even speak or write the words, ‘Nothing is…’? The only thing one can speak or write is whatever remains after you have taken away every possible descriptive term that can be appended to the term, ‘Nothing.’ There is nothing that nothing can be or do… except noth. (Apologies to any logical positivist reading this.)

Is that it? Is that all one can say?

Taking our cue from arithmetic and set theory, if we are prepared to accept that pure abstract objects exist in all possible worlds — I mean, if we are happy with talk of abstract objects, happy using the notion of possible worlds as a term of art — why not just say that the idea that there ‘might have been nothing’ is absurd for the simple reason that the set of all possible worlds is most definitely something and not nothing.

There’s a big gap between all possible worlds, and the actual world containing you and me, and that gap has to be explained somehow. (E.g. If everything began with a Big Bang, how did ‘it’ choose how to bang?) But that question is a different question from the one that you asked.

Robert asked:

Was Bishop George Berkeley the first person to maintain that matter did not exist? Who was the first person who maintained that space did not exist? Who was the first person who maintained that time did not exist?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Berkeley was not the first philosopher to deny the existence of matter. That honour goes to the Presocratic philosopher Parmenides of Elea, who was indeed the first philosopher to deny the existence of matter, time and space.

According to Parmenides, the only thing that is, is the One. The only true statement one can make is, ‘It is.’ From that statement, various propositions follow:

The One was not, or will it be but exists altogether now, in the present. Hence, time does not exist. The One is not material, and it is not mental either. Any property P such that a thing can either be P, or not-P, such as ‘white’ or ‘square’, ‘heavy’ or ‘fragile’, ‘painful’ or ‘warm’, is disqualified from belonging to the One.

The One is finite, not infinite, because infinity implies something that ‘is not’. Parmenides describes the One as ‘like the bulk of a well-rounded sphere’. However, that doesn’t imply that the One is spherical in a literal sense. He is using an image.

So what about the world we all know, where things can be white or square or heavy or fragile, etc.? None of that is real, says Parmenides. Nothing we say about ‘our world’ can be true. (It is a problem with Parmenides’ theory that it is not at all easy to see how one accounts for the ‘reality’ of this on-going illusion. But that’s a problem we won’t go into.)

Parmenides’ theory of the One made a huge impact on the philosophers that followed. They couldn’t agree that the One was all there is, but the argument that Parmenides gave seemed to be compelling. So they made various compromises. Empedocles said that the world is made up of four unchanging elements. The Atomists Democritus and Leucippus said that the world is made up of atoms in motion, each atom being like a miniature unchanging Parmenidean ‘One’.

What was the argument Parmenides gave for his theory?

On the face of it, the argument is a blatant non-sequitur:

1. Take anything you like (call it x).

2. Either x is, or x is not.

3. If x is not, then x cannot be. The very idea of x is ‘unthinkable’.

4. By contraposition, if x can be then it is.

5. If ‘x is’ follows from ‘x is possible’ then x is necessary.

6. All that is, is necessary and cannot not-be.

As the very idea that ‘x is not’ is unthinkable, there is no place for negation in any account of ‘what is’. If there are two objects, x and y, then x is not y and y is not x, which is impossible. Hence x is necessarily One. If the One is white, then it is not black. So the One cannot be white or black or any other colour.

But why on earth should we accept step 3? There are plenty of things that ‘are not’. I do not have two heads. Sheffield is not on the Moon. The drink in my mug is not tea.

Parmenides’ response? Not cannot be part of what a thing is. There is no such thing, no such property as not-ness. ‘Not’ is a word we use for various practical purposes, but it does not refer, cannot refer, to anything in reality. Reality is what is, and only what is. Anything on top is something we have added, something that is not ultimately real.

Think about that for a while, and your head will start spinning.

You might, for example, consider that the very idea of things existing contingently — say, the Big Bang might not have banged, the solar system might not have formed, I might not have been born etc. — is absurd. If you are talking about what is real, then contingency can be no part of reality.

The God theory is just another example of an attempt to ‘customize’ Parmenides’ One, like the theories of Empedocles or the Atomists. Just like those theories, it requires a compromise, going back on what Parmenides considers that he has proved. There is only the One, and the One cannot be described in any way other than saying that, ‘It is.’

Give it time, and you will begin to see Parmenides meant. And then you will understand why he is considered one of the giants of Western Philosophy.

Lee asked:

Hello! I was wondering if there is any relationship between personal identity and Nietzsche’s ideas of eternal recurrence. I know that time and personal identity are two concepts that are constantly interwoven, but I wonder if there is a way to think of eternal recurrence in this frame as well. Thanks!

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

The best way I can answer your question, Lee, is to tell you a story:

Born in 1846, in Frankfurt, just two years after Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Schmidt was the son of a prominent banker. It is known that he wrote one philosophical work, whose title has been sadly forgotten. He gave up philosophy and joined the family business after the one and only manuscript was destroyed in a fire at his publishing house before the book went into print.

Friends commented that Karl appeared to show little concern for his tragic loss. ‘I feel no less sorry for all the other Karls than I do for myself,’ he is reported to have said. It was only years later after his death that a notebook was discovered, in which Schmidt described his theory of ‘Endless Duplication.’

According to Schmidt’s theory, the universe is one of an infinite series of identical universes, existing side by side in space. ‘All the other Karls’ refers to the infinitely many Karl Schmidts.

“Be glad! You are not alone in your suffering, you are not alone in your joy. Every action that you do is done an infinite number of times, each time with the same result. If you hit the target once, you always hit the target and never miss. If you miss the target, then there is no point in regret because you miss the target every time.”

Commentators have noted that Schmidt’s theory bears a remarkable resemblance to Nietzsche’s theory of the Eternal Recurrence. However, the date of the notebook entry is five years before the first mention of the Eternal Recurrence in Nietzsche’s published works. Could it be that Nietzsche adapted Schmidt’s idea, applying his ‘endless duplication’ to a series of identical universes in time rather than in space?

Though the supposition is initially plausible, the problem is that there is no record that Nietzsche and Schmidt ever met. Also, it is also known that the Eternal Recurrence was first formulated by the Stoics two thousand years earlier. Maybe, like Nietzsche, Schmidt was intrigued by the Stoic theory, but for reasons of his own replaced the temporal series with a spatial one.

Although Nietzsche attempts a proof of the Eternal Recurrence in his notebooks posthumously published as The Will to Power, the point of the theory is a test, a thought experiment: are you mentally strong enough to will that in the infinite number of times that you will get the chance to relive your life, you will make the same decisions every time, and everything that happens in your life will be the same?

But will it be you? What makes the two Nietzsches, or the two Schmidts, the same person, rather than someone exactly like the previous Nietzsche, or the previous Schmidt?

In his book Theories of Existence (1985), Timothy Sprigge in a chapter on Nietzsche admits that the question about identity or non-identity in the Eternal Recurrence is one where there is no convincing proof either way, although he would ‘like to think’ that if the Eternal Recurrence is true then he, Timothy Sprigge, will live the same life, over and over again.

Maybe Schmidt considered the implications of this embarrassing loophole, and decided to improve on the Stoic theory by substituting space for time. In the next universe along in the spatial series of universes, there is no possibility that the GK typing these words at this moment is ‘one and the same’ as the GK in this universe.

Using Schmidt’s ‘endless duplication’, a stronger argument can be made, that there is no reason why the ‘next GK’ in the infinite temporal series of universes should bear any closer relation to the GK in this universe than the ‘next GK’ in the infinite spatial series of universes. If there are an infinite number of GKs in Schmidt’s Endless Duplication, then there must be an infinite number of GKs in Nietzsche’s Eternal Recurrence.

There is a counter-argument, however. Although Nietzsche doesn’t explicitly state this — and it appears inconsistent with the argument sketch in The Will to Power which assumes a deterministic Newtonian Universe in infinite time — an alternative interpretation of the Eternal Recurrence would be a circular time. Time is finite and circular rather than infinitely extended in a straight line. If time is circular, then the ‘next GK’ is none other than me because the universe has gone back to a previous time.

Just in case I get accused of promulgating ‘false facts’, the story about Karl Schmidt is made up. Any resemblance to any actual historical figure is purely coincidental. The original version of my story can be found here.

Philosophizer by Geoffrey Klempner

'Philosophizer' by Geoffrey Klempner


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