P H I L O S O P H Y P A T H W A Y S ISSN 2043-0728
Issue number 124
31st January 2007
I. 'On Cartesian Metaphysics' by Alfredo Lucero-Montano
II. 'Review of Richard Dawkins The God Delusion' by Lawrence Trevanion
III. 'Heidegger, Technology and Time: review of the film The Ister'
by Matthew Del Nevo
The Cogito and Descartes' two proofs of the existence of God are familiar
ground to first year philosophy students. Alfredo Lucero-Montano gives a
careful evaluation of Descartes' arguments, emphasising the novelty of
Descartes' attempt to determine the nature of being starting from the pure idea
of thought as such. The essay succeeds in casting new illumination in a
Richard Dawkins is the author of the best-selling introduction to orthodox
Darwinian evolutionary theory, The Selfish Gene. In the final chapter of that
book he describes his controversial theory of 'memes', the idea that ideas are
propagated and survive for reasons totally unconnected with truth; religion
being one such idea. In his most recent book, The God Delusion, Dawkins takes
his attack on religion a stage further. Lawrence Trevanion offers a critical
but ultimately sympathetic view which gives little hope to those who would like
to cling to their religious 'delusions'.
This is the first time that we have included a film review in Philosophy
Pathways. However, The Ister is no ordinary film. It was made by Australian
film-makers David Barison and Daniel Ross as an accompaniment to Heidegger's
lectures on Holderlin's poem der Ister, the river more widely known as the
Danube. ISFP Board member Matthew Del Nevo offers compelling reasons why anyone
interested in 20th century philosophy should make every effort to see this.
Finally, Pathways contributor Seher Yekenkurul has politely taken me to task
for referring in the last issue to 'his' interview with David Chalmers, when I
should have said 'her'. My false assumption is an embarrassing example of
sexist bias for which I am glad to take this opportunity to apologize.
I. 'ON CARTESIAN METAPHYSICS' BY ALFREDO LUCERO-MONTANO
The starting point of Descartes' philosophy is that we must 'doubt everything,
as far as is possible,' and this obviously represents an absolute beginning.
This is Descartes' essential thesis of philosophy. Nevertheless, this first
thesis does not entail a skeptical sense, whose aim is doubt itself. On the
contrary, Descartes' doubt means that we must give up any prejudice and any
proposition that we might directly accept as true, and take thought itself as a
starting point to arrive to certainty and to establish, then, a pure
beginning. For Descartes, doubt is not a consequence, but a starting point.
Cartesian doubt means that no idea is either certain or indubitable, unless
reason can separate itself from all preconceived opinions, namely, to think,
because the pure thinking precisely consists in separating itself from
uncertainty. What prevails in the Cartesian mind is the goal of arriving at
something certain -- objective -- and not to just stand still at the subjective
moment, but to arrive to something established, known and proven by reason. In
Descartes' own words:
Since we began life as infants, and made various judgements
concerning the things that can be perceived by the senses
before we had the full use of our reason, there are many
preconceived opinions that keep us from knowledge of truth.
It seems that the only way of freeing ourselves from these
opinions is to make the effort... to doubt everything which
we find to contain even the smallest suspicion of
uncertainty. This doubt... should be kept in check and
employed solely in connection with the contemplation of the
This Cartesian reasoning, then, states that what is truth must be recognized
within reason itself.
Descartes seeks something certain and true in itself, something that is not
merely true like the object of faith -- without knowledge -- nor like sense
certainty and skeptical certainty which lack truth. For Descartes, nothing is
true but what has an inward certainty (in consciousness), or when reason knows
in a clear and definite way, that is, when it excludes any possibility of doubt:
In rejecting... everything which we can in any way doubt,
it is easy for us to suppose that there is no God and no
heaven, and that there are no bodies, and even that we
ourselves have no hands or feet, or indeed any body at all.
But we cannot for all that suppose that we, who are having
such thoughts, are nothing. For it is a contradiction to
suppose that what thinks does not, at the very time when it
is thinking, exist. Accordingly, this piece of knowledge --
I am thinking, therefore I exist -- is the first and most
certain of all to occur to anyone who philosophizes in an
orderly way. This is the best way to discover the nature of
mind and the distinction between the mind and the body. For
if we, who are supposing that everything which is distinct
from the false, examine what we are, we see very clearly
that neither extension nor shape nor local motion, nor
anything of this kind which is attributable to a body,
belongs to our nature, but that thought alone belongs to
it. So our knowledge of our thought is prior to, and more
certain than, our knowledge of any corporeal thing.
Therefore, Descartes does not understand the cogito as the individuality of
consciousness of itself, but rather as the meaning of thought. This is
precisely the the second Cartesian thesis, namely, the immediate certainty of
thought. The certainty is nothing but knowledge as such, in its pure form, as
reflected upon itself, which is thought.
The starting point of Descartes, then, is the cogito as the simply certain;
what I know is that something presents or represents in me. His philosophy now
moves toward the realm of subjectivity. The content of the proposition is
abandoned, because it disappears facing an abstract subjectivity. Considering
the content in itself is no longer important, for if I can abstract myself of
all representations, I cannot abstract myself from the cogito. Thought is
absolutely general, but not because the cogito can abstract itself, but because
the cogito is this entity, both simple and identical with itself. Thought is the
first determination; the one that follows is the determination of being.
According to Descartes, the 'I think' involves directly my own being, and this
is the absolute foundation of all philosophy.
It was necessary that I, who was thinking this, was
something. And observing that this truth 'I am thinking,
therefore I exist' was so firm and sure that all the most
extravagant suppositions of the sceptics were incapable of
shaking it, I decided that I could accept it without
scruple as the first principle of the philosophy I was
The determination of being is contained in my cogito, and this is the first
relation. The thinking as being, and the being as thinking, is my certainty, my
cogito; in the Cogito, ergo sum we find inseparably united thought and being.
This thesis -- Cogito, ergo sum -- seems constructed as a syllogism, as if from
thought we can deduce being. Kant argues against this syllogistic mechanism, and
he claims that thought does not contain being, for the latter is something
different from thought. Of course, this is true, but it is no less true that
both are inseparable, that is, we find an identity between both -- its unity is
not undermined by its diversity. Nevertheless, this absolute and pure certainty
is not proven -- the totality that is in itself. This is why we cannot turn
this proposition into a deduction. In Descartes' own words:
When someone says 'I am thinking, therefore I am, or I
exist', he does not deduce existence from thought by means
of a syllogism, but recognizes it as something self-evident
by a simple intuition of the mind. This is clear from the
fact that if he were deducing it by means of a syllogism,
he would have to have had previous knowledge of the major
premiss 'Everything which thinks is, or exists'; yet in
fact he learns it from experiencing in his own case that it
is impossible that he should think without existing.
A syllogism is an argument consisting of three terms; here we should have a
third term that would function as a mediator, as a link between thought and
being, but this third term does not exist. The 'therefore' that links both
thought and being is not the 'therefore' of a syllogism. Here the relation
between thought and being is established in an immediate way. This certainty is
a metaphysical priority.
Descartes, at this point, is not concerned to demonstrate the identity between
being and thought, but just to refer to awareness or consciousness. He does not
yet feel the necessity to develop the differences contained in the 'I think'. He
only stresses the cogito, not on the rest of its content. For him, being is
identical to pure thought, not the content of being, whatever it is.
By the term 'thought', I understand everything which we are
aware of as happening within us, in so far as we have
awareness of it. Hence, thinking is to be identified here
not merely with understanding, willing and imagining, but
also with sensory awareness. For if I say 'I am seeing, or
I am walking, therefore I exist', and take this as applying
to vision or walking as bodily activities, then the
conclusion is not absolutely certain. This is because, as
often happens during sleep, it is possible for me to think
I am seeing or walking, though my eyes are closed and I am
not moving about; such thoughts might even be possible if I
had no body at all. But if I take 'seeing' or 'walking' to
apply to the actual sense or awareness of seeing or
walking, then the conclusion is quite certain, since it
relates to the mind.
With willing, seeing, etc., thought is implicit, because it would be absurd to
believe that the mind keeps a special compartment for the faculty of thinking.
However, when we say: 'I am seeing' or 'I am walking', on one hand, my
consciousness, the cogito and, hence, thinking are implicit, and on the other,
willing, seeing, walking, etc., and with it the content of consciousness is
also implicit. And precisely this content prevents us from asserting 'I am
walking, therefore I exist', for we can abstract ourselves from such mental
occurrence since it is not thinking as such. We have to view the pure
consciousness contained in this concrete cogito. When I exist in it as thinking
being, only then I have before me the pure being, since this pure being can
considered only in general and never in a particular state. Descartes writes:
In order to realize that the knowledge of our mind is not
simply prior to and more certain than the knowledge of our
body, but also more evident... as is manifest from the fact
that whatever enables us to know anything else cannot but
lead us to a much surer knowledge of our own mind. For
example, if I judge that the earth exists from the fact
that I touch it or see it, this very fact undoubtedly gives
even greater support for the judgement that my mind exists.
For it may perhaps be the case that I judge that I am
touching the earth even though the earth does not exist at
all; but it cannot be that, when I make this judgement, my
mind which is making the judgement does not exist. And the
same applies in other cases 'regarding all the things that
come into our mind, namely that we who think of them
exists, even if they are false or have no existence.'
Here we see philosophy's proper realm, the basis on which thought starts from
thought itself as something certain, and not from something exterior or given,
but pure and simply from the activity that contains the 'I think'. Though I can
doubt everything else, the existence of physical things, or my own body, still
this certainty of the cogito has the property of the immediate. For the cogito
is precisely the certainty itself, of which everything else is only the
predicate; naturally, my body is certain for me, but is not certainty itself.
There are certain things that make us doubt the existence
of our body. Therefore we shall not attain certainty of
this except through the knowledge and certainty of
something else that is prior to it in knowledge and
certainty. Therefore the statement 'I am', insofar as 'I'
am a thing consisting of body, is not a first principle and
is not known through itself.
For Descartes, the real is a substance, and the 'I' is the thinking substance;
the latter exists for itself as something distinct and independent of all
material and external things: 'From this I knew I was a substance whose whole
essence or nature is simply to think, and which does not require any place, or
depend on any material thing, in order to exist'. Its thinking nature is
self-evident: the mind would think and exist even if material things did not
exist; that is why the mind is easier to know than the body.
Any truth we might have lies in this certainty, for anything we could hold as
true needs this certainty in the inwardness of consciousness:
We must consider as most certainly true everything that is
equally evident to us and that we perceive with the same
clearness and distinctness as the already discovered first
principle, and also everything that so agrees with this
first principle and so depends on it that we cannot doubt
it without also having to doubt this first principle (that
is, this 'I').
The knowledge of itself is perfect certainty, but it is not yet the truth. For
if we considered this proposition as the truth, we only have a vacuous content,
and it is precisely the content of truth -- being -- that the Cartesian project
is all about.
I observed that there is nothing at all in the proposition
'I am thinking, therefore I exist' to assure me that I am
speaking the truth, except that I see very clearly that in
order to think it is necessary to exist.
The issue now is the movement from certainty to truth. Descartes, at this
point, offers us his metaphysics. The process involves the interest of other
representations about the abstract unity of being and thought.
The mind... knowing itself, but still in doubt about all
other things, looks around in all directions in order to
extend its knowledge further. First of all, it finds within
itself ideas of many things; and so long as it merely
contemplates these ideas and does not affirm or deny the
existence outside itself of anything resembling them, it
cannot be mistaken. Next, it finds certain common notions
from which it constructs various proofs; [and so long as it
attends to the premises from which it deduced them]... it is
completely convinced of their truth. But... recalling that
it is still ignorant as to whether it may have been created
with the kind of nature that makes it go wrong even in
matters which appear most evident, the mind sees that it
has just cause to doubt such conclusions.
Descartes writes here that error, with respect to the representation, takes
place in relation with exterior existence; for if the soul can exist without
the corporeal, and the latter without the former, therefore, they are distinct
realities, and thus the one can be conceived without the other. Hence, the
soul does not know with the same clarity and distinction the other as it knows
the certainty of itself.
However, the truth of all knowledge entails the proof of the existence of God.
The soul is an imperfect substance, but it has within itself the idea of an
absolutely perfect substance; this perfection is not created by itself, for it
is an imperfect one, hence, it is an innate idea.
The mere fact that I exist and have within me an idea of
a most perfect being, that is, God, provides a very clear
proof that God indeed exists. It only remains for me to
examine how I received this idea from God. For I did not
acquire it from the senses... .And it was not invented by
me either... .The only remaining alternative is that it is
innate in me, just as the idea of myself is innate in
According to Descartes, while the existence of God is not proven and
recognized, there is the possibility that we could be mistaken, due to our
incapacity to know if our nature is really inclined to fall into error.
Given that we have within us an idea of the supreme
perfection of God. Now it is certainly very evident by
natural light that a thing which recognizes something more
perfect than itself is not the source of its own being; for
if so, it would have given itself all the perfection of
which it has an idea. Hence, the source of its being can
only be something which possesses within itself all these
perfections -- that is, God.
Descartes here contrasts the consciousness of itself and the consciousness of
the other (objectivity), but the real matter is the unity of both things, that
is, how to know if what we discover in thought also has objectivity. However,
this unity lies in God, that is, is God itself.
The mind next considers the various ideas which it has
within itself, and finds that there is one idea -- the idea
of a supremely intelligent, supremely powerful and supremely
perfect being -- which stands out from all others.
For when we reflect on the idea of God... we see that he is
eternal, omniscient, omnipotent, the source of all goodness
and truth... and finally that he possesses within him
everything in which we can clearly recognize some
perfection that is infinite.
This general idea, which spans over everything, characterizes within it that
there is no uncertainty about its being (existence), such as we observe in many
other ideas. This idea guarantees the existence of its object.
In this one idea the mind recognizes existence -- not
merely the possible and contingent existence which belongs
to the ideas of all the other things which it distinctly
perceives, but utterly necessary and eternal existence. Now
on the basis of its perfection that... necessary and eternal
existence is contained in the idea of a supremely perfect
being, the mind must clearly conclude that the supreme
being does exist.
The idea of perfection contains within it, as an effect, the property
(determination) of existence, for we cannot assert that the concept
(representation) of something not existent is perfect. Here we have the unity
of thought and being or, in other words, the ontological argument for the
existence of God. This is Descartes' attempt to deduce the existence of God
from the idea of God: we understand God as a perfect being, nothing greater can
be conceived, and since we have this idea, God exists. In sum, the argument for
the existence of God, starting from its idea, entails its existence, and hence
it is true.
1. Descartes, Principles of Philosophy (AT VIIIA 5), in The Philosophical
Writings of Descartes, trans. J. Cottingham, R. Stoothoff and D. Murdoch, vol.
1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).
2. Here the notion 'pure beginning' means, in a Kantian sense, that such
beginning does not depend of any particular course of experience.
3. Ibidem (AT VIIIA 5-6).
4. Ibidem (AT VIIIA 7).
5. Descartes, Discourse on the Method (AT VI 32), in The Philosophical Writings
of Descartes, trans. J. Cottingham, R. Stoothoff and D. Murdoch, vol. 1
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).
6. Descartes, Objections and Replies published together with the Meditations on
First Philosophy (AT VII 140-141), in The Philosophical Writings of Descartes,
trans. J. Cottingham, R. Stoothoff and D. Murdoch, vol. 2 (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1984).
7. Descartes, Principles of Philosophy (AT VIIIA 7-8).
8. Ibidem (AT VIIIA 8-9).
9. Spinoza, The Principles of Cartesian Philosophy (PPCp3dem), trans. Samuel
Shirley (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1998).
10. Descartes, On the Method (AT VI 33).
11. Spinoza (PPCp4schol).
12. Descartes, On the Method (AT VI 33).
13. Principles of Philosophy (AT VIIIA 10-11).
14. See Meditations, Med6 (AT VII 73).
15. Meditations, Med3 (AT VII 51).
16. Principles of Philosophy (AT VIIIA 12).
17. Ibidem (AT VIIIA 10).
18. Ibidem (AT VIIIA 13).
19. Ibidem (AT VIIIA 10).
Descartes, Principles of Philosophy. In The Philosophical Writings of
Descartes. Trans. J. Cottingham, R. Stoothoff and D. Murdoch. Vol. 1.
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).
___. Discourse on the Method. In The Philosophical Writings of Descartes.
Trans. J. Cottingham, R. Stoothoff and D. Murdoch. Vol. 1. (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1985).
___. Objections and Replies published together with the Meditations on First
Philosophy. In The Philosophical Writings of Descartes. Trans. J. Cottingham,
R. Stoothoff and D. Murdoch. Vol. 2. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
Spinoza, Baruch. The Principles of Cartesian Philosophy. Trans. Samuel Shirley.
(Indianapolis: Hackett, 1998).
(c) Alfredo Lucero Montano 2007
II. 'REVIEW OF RICHARD DAWKINS THE GOD DELUSION' BY LAWRENCE TREVANION
The God Delusion
Bantam Press 2006
It is refreshing to read a no nonsense critique of religion from an eminent
scientist. I share his fear that religion is a threat to human inquiry into the
real, particularly its promotion of the self-serving view that 'Thou shalt have
no other concepts before me'.
I think it is worth introducing into a discussion on religion the notion from
the field of biology that Homo sapiens has entered the 'conceptual niche'. The
miracles that can be achieved in this niche are so astonishing that it seems
unlikely that human culture will ever forget the possibility it holds. It seems
possible that humanity is just at the doorway of this niche and so we should
resent the attempt by religion to block the entrance so as to prevent deeper
incursion into the niche past religion itself.
One weakness of the conceptual niche is that regardless of the conceptual
achievements of a culture, each new individual born into that culture must
enter the conceptual niche themselves. This is a focal point of religious
policy and Dawkins is right to point out the danger of religious organizations
I am doubtful that concepts from the Stone Age will continue to thrive but
admit that progressives have reason to be pessimistic. Voltaire's
'Philosophical Dictionary', for example, predates 'The God Delusion' by nearly
250 years yet some of Voltaire's observations (unacknowledged in Dawkins) still
shock the door-to-door Evangelists. On the other hand, consider the negative
reviews of Dawkins' book. They tend to take refuge in the opinions of
theologians or in obscure personal notions of God rather than the Bible itself.
People tend not to think that Heaven is up and Hell is down. It may not be much
and it may have taken a quarter of a millennium but something has been achieved.
My optimism concerning the decline of religion has a stronger foundation than
just this. My own view is that religion has conceptual content that has yet to
be effectively challenged. Dawkins does not see this content and fails to
recognize it in his own thought. A minor but striking example of his failure to
see conceptual content is his discussion on cargo cults. He observes (p203) 'The
independent flowering of so many independent but similar cults suggests some
unifying features of human psychology in general'. He means particularly by
this human 'susceptibility to religion'. But it is obvious from his description
of the cults that they are an attempt at explanation -- it is evidence of
rationality in human psychology not susceptibility to religion! We should be
humbled by the cargo cult attempt at explanation for it reminds us that we
ourselves could be made to look conceptually incompetent.
My own feeling is that the development of human understanding has been a long
and difficult struggle and that religion has been a serious and honest
contributor to that struggle. As a thought experiment I wonder, for example,
what it means to think that the sun is a God and it strikes me that it is an
attempt to understand visual perception. (The use of light as a symbol for the
soul seems to be an associated understanding.) Needless to say I deplore the
willful dishonesty in modern Christianity. But dishonesty and hypocrisy are not
the exclusive province of religion. More importantly, dishonesty (or
self-deception) is not the essence of religion. It seems to me that this may be
a critical difference of opinion that separates Dawkins from his religious
I do not think the persistence of religion, irrational and anti-rational as it
may sometimes be, requires us to abandon the notion that merit is the main
feature of a concept's survival. I do not think we must adopt a survival theory
of memes to account for religion. Do we not ask ourselves whether the 'meme'
meme itself has merit?
The religious content in Dawkins' own thought lies in his understandings of the
concept of truth and the problem of mind and body. It is notable that Dawkins
sees nature or inevitability in both these areas. He writes:
'Maybe scientists are fundamentalist when it comes to
defining in some abstract way what is meant by 'truth'. But
so is everybody else.' (p283)
'The idea that there is a me perched somewhere behind my
eyes and capable, at least in fiction, of migrating into
somebody else's head, is deeply ingrained in me and in
every other human being, whatever our intellectual
pretensions to monism.' (p180)
Keeping in mind that Dawkins thinks there is 'nothing beyond the natural
physical world' (p14) let us look at his comments relating to truth and the
real. He writes:
'This predictive success seems to mean that quantum theory
has to be true in some sense; as true as anything we know,
even including the most down-to-earth common sense facts.'
It seems from this that Dawkins thinks statements can be more true or less true
but that we have no perfectly true statements about the real world. It would be
odd to suppose that there are true statements in the real world that are not
about the real world but Dawkins may think that mathematical statements are of
this type. Given that to Dawkins the real world is everything then you would
expect him to argue that we do not have any final truths at all.
He nevertheless writes:
'That you cannot prove God's non-existence is accepted and
trivial, if only in the sense that we can never absolutely
prove the non-existence of anything.' (p54)
This sentence makes no sense unless we understand that the word 'absolutely' is
meant as emphasis rather than as indicating a different kind of proof. This
suggests that Dawkins envisages ultimate truths and proofs even though we have
none that concern the real world in practice. Furthermore, when Dawkins writes
about the probability of something being true he gives the impression that this
is the probability of it being absolutely or finally true.
The point of these remarks is to confirm Dawkins' implicit description of
himself as a truth-fundamentalist. But how did he arrive at this notion of
truth when he can find no example of it? It looks as if he has used none other
than Aquinas' 'Argument from Degree' (discussed p78-79), in effect, some truths
are more true than others therefore there is a maximum truth. I think Dawkins
owes us an explanation as to why an ultimate being is absurd but ultimate truth
Not everybody is a truth-fundamentalist. Ultimate truth seems as absurd to me
as an ultimate being does to Dawkins. Language simply does not support it:
identifying particulars is fraught and collective terms are inevitably fuzzy.
If one starts with a notion of ultimate truth it is inescapable because any
examination of it is subject to it. Rather, we should start with truth as we
find it: we should consider the experience that leads us to an understanding of
the word. Taking this approach I think it is fair to observe that when we
genuinely assert that something is true we are affirming it (and we usually
don't add that it is true). We affirm in a finite or limited context and do not
attempt to assail the Heavens with assertions that will ring to the end of time.
We do not make assertions as if the Universe is defined and discovered and
comprehended. It does not follow that the Universe, whatever that may mean, is
definable, discoverable or comprehensible. We make assertions as discoverers
and our assertions reflect how much we have discovered. The truth of
assertions, therefore, is relative and objective i.e. it is relative to our
experience of the real world. Our assertions do not have a relationship to a
perfectly known and comprehended Universe (because we do not perfectly know the
Universe and do not know if it is knowable or comprehensible). Our assertions
relate to what we know about the Universe.
People now have so much knowledge at their disposal that they may take it as a
matter of course that assertions/ theories may be falsified as a result of
changing (enlarged) meaning and context. No truths are unassailable (and note
that only an absolutist understanding can turn this assertion into a paradox).
Language is communicative and cannot be confined, in principle, to a person or
culture and so no personal or cultural truths are unassailable either. It makes
no sense to respect truths relative to person or culture as absolute truths.
There is no basis for introducing ultimate meaning and context into our
considerations (which is a profoundly anti-religious observation) and no basis
for using probability to relate current knowledge to such a context. Dawkins'
resort to probability so as to reconcile his notion of truth with our pervasive
uncertainty about the real is unwarranted and unnecessary. It is religion, not
science, that aspires to ultimate knowledge. It is religion that attempts to
ask ultimate questions and provide ultimate answers (and as a truth
fundamentalist Dawkins sometimes engages with it in the wrong way.) The
futility of religion in this regard is notable and science can expect the same
outcome if it adopts the same ambition (as it sometimes does!). Ultimate or
fundamentalist truth is a religious concept.
The meaning and context of contemporary science has arisen from the study of
objects. It is now so powerful and comprehensive that people without an
understanding of science may be regarded as conceptually incompetent. Dawkins
argues that ancient religious assertions will not be re-discovered as true. It
seems obvious that he is correct.
A quick note on the truth of mathematics is probably required. Traditionally
mathematics (including formal logic) has been credited with absolute truths and
proofs. But in mathematics 'is true' means 'is consistent' (with the rules of
the mathematical system). It makes sense to say 2+2=4 is true in its
application as counting but as an assertion in an abstract mathematical system
it is difficult to see what more one could mean than to say that it is
consistent within the system. It makes sense therefore to use the word
'consistent' rather than 'true' in mathematics i.e. we consider truth in the
application of mathematics but not in mathematics itself.
We think of proofs as producing irresistible conclusions. This is only possible
in an abstract system with well-defined elements and procedures. It makes sense
to confine the word 'proof' to mathematics. Outside mathematics it is more
appropriate to use the word 'demonstrate' rather than 'proof'. According to
this usage, in mathematics we prove the consistency of assertions and in
science we test and demonstrate the truth of theories.
The notion that truth is about affirming something means that we dispute the
understanding in (applied) logic that assertions are either true or false, for
they may simply be nonsensical, and we dispute that tautologies are true for
they say nothing about their subject. The self-reference paradoxes disappear
because we cannot perfectly identify the 'self' and cannot make perfectly true
or false assertions about that self.
We do not consider proofs for the existence of God because there are no agreed
elements and procedures in which to construct such a proof. We may say
something exists if there is evidence for it. Conversely we may say something
does not exist if there is no evidence for it. An absence of evidence (in a
context) is a demonstration of non-existence in that context. We are thus able
to argue that God does not exist because our best understanding of the world,
our scientific understanding, yields no evidence of God. The multitude of
understandings of the word God, far from rescuing God, serve to emphasize God's
poorly resolved identity. Proponents of a particular understanding of God would
need not just to demonstrate God's existence but also provide a strong
explanation as to why God has been so widely misidentified.
The second of Dawkins' religious concepts concerns the mind-body problem. The
mind-body problem is a great fracture in contemporary understanding and while
this persists I do not think the conceptual content of religion can be
Dawkins describes himself as a monist and an atheist. He writes:
'An atheist ...is somebody who believes there is nothing
beyond the natural physical world, no supernatural creative
intelligence... no soul that outlasts the body ...' (p14)
'Human thoughts and emotions emerge from exceedingly
complex interconnections of physical entities within the
'A monist, by contrast, believes that mind is a
manifestation of matter -- material in a brain or perhaps a
computer -- and cannot exist apart from matter.' (p179-180)
Dawkins seems to be of the view that mind/ emotions/ consciousness all exist:
apparently as material or as a manifestation (?) of matter. One assumes they do
not feature in the chemistry books because they are vast complexes of atoms, but
if this is the case it is difficult to see how they emerge from a complex of
interconnections. Perhaps Dawkins means emotions are the action of vast
complexes of atoms (thereby breaking down the distinction between nouns and
How did Dawkins arrive at the conclusion that emotion is material? His best
evidence would be that when someone says they feel an emotion this correlates
with the presence of a particular structure or activity in the brain. But the
correlation is no more than that. It is only a correlation. We identify the
brain and the emotion separately. And so to say that not only do they correlate
but that they are the same thing, this surely is a step beyond reason into
faith. If both emotion and brain are admitted as existent then Dawkins'
solution to the mind-body problem involves stepping from correlation to
miraculous identity. He should not be surprised if religious people do not
share his view of this particular miracle but see the soul as separate from the
body. He should not be surprised if religious people feel that his awe of the
real world, as a knowledgeable scientist, is trivial and disrespectful compared
to the undeniable and irresistible awe they feel at their own presence in that
Dawkins' miraculous monism, his faith-based atheism, contains a critical
religious entity -- the mind element of the mind-body problem.
The mind-body problem isn't difficult. It is conceptual change that is the hard
problem. (Who will welcome new concepts? Who will conceptually re-decorate,
change house, change country?)
To solve the problem one must start with human experience rather than by
assuming, as Dawkins does, that there is a real world. Experience is the given
that we start with, not the real world. The notion that there is a real world
is obtained from comprehending experience.
The deep history of human conceptual development has yielded the notion that we
perceive the real world. This notion had developed to such an extent that by the
eighteenth century British empiricists (notably Berkeley and Hume) could assert
that all experience is perceived. Since then the development of science has
provided a detailed understanding of the mechanism of the perception of the
real in terms of the real. It is now easy to conjecture that all experience not
just our perception of the real, may be understood in terms of mechanism. The
relationship between one's experience and the real is now recognized to be so
close that people, such as Dawkins, feel compelled to assert that there is only
the real. All experience seems able to be related to activity in the brain.
We are thus able to propose that humans are objects that perceive; that
perception is a process in the real world; and that our experience can be
understood as what we perceive. This is to propose that our experience is what
it is like for an object to perceive. This can by no means be discounted for if
we are objects that perceive, then our knowledge of objects (including
ourselves) is obtained indirectly and uncertainly through perception -- because
perception is mediated. The anti-real attitude fostered by the mind-body
understanding is no basis for dismissing the notion that we are objects that
perceive. The notion that perception by humans is conscious (at least in part)
and that perception by objects is 'blind' and mechanical, (behaviorist even),
is founded on the mind-body distinction and cannot be understood as supportive
of that distinction.
As a perceiving object we learn that there is a real world; learn that we
ourselves are an object in that world; and learn that we know about the world
because we perceive it. The development of this understanding has evidently
taken place on a cultural and historical scale rather than a personal one. If
humans really are objects that perceive then it has taken humans -- a network
of communicative perceivers, a long time to reach this conclusion.
But if humans are objects that perceive why do they think they have a mind? Our
understanding of other people as objects seems unproblematic. We think other
people have minds because we understand that we ourselves have one. We think we
ourselves have a mind because, one, we think there is a real world and two, we
recognize that what we perceive and the real world are different. We call what
we perceive 'mind'. We thus identify two entities -- the real, and our mind.
The flaw in this reasoning may already be obvious. From a perceiver's point of
view there is NOT two distinct entities -- the real world AND what we perceive.
The basis for our comprehension of the real world is what we perceive. The real,
which we say exists, arises from our comprehension of experience, a
comprehension that does not add any new existence into our understanding such
that we need to consider how we perceive what we perceive. What we perceive
does not appear as an entity in that real world: not as emotion; not as color;
not as qualia. If it did what we perceive would be one of the items that we
might perceive thereby producing a regression (typical of the mind-body
problem). We do not find what we perceive (or mind, or consciousness or qualia)
in the real -- the real arises from our comprehension of what we perceive. There
is no basis for a perceiving object to argue that what it perceives is produced
by the real world for this would be to put what it perceives as an item into a
comprehension derived from what it perceives. The mind-body problem arises when
we put what we perceive as an entity into the comprehension of what we perceive.
We double entities and become confused about whether we perceive objects or
whether we perceive perceptions; we wonder what the relationship is between
perceptions and objects.
Note Dawkins' confusion in the matter of perception. He writes:
'We never evolved to navigate the world of atoms. If we had
our brains probably would perceive rocks as full of empty
What could mediate this perception in the way that light mediates when we see
objects? What could a brain be made of to receive this mediating phenomenon?
Our visual comprehension of the real is based on light reflecting off huge
aggregations of atoms. To expect the real this presents to us to be replicated
at the level of light and atoms is to expect the real to be infinitely
analyzable i.e. that it is real because it is made up of the real. This is to
suppose that our perception of the real is the perfect apprehension of the
real. Visualizing rocks as full of empty space is an insecure understanding.
(For a discussion of the unreality of quantum mechanics see my review of J.
Baggott's Beyond Measure at
'What we see of the real world is not the unvarnished real
world but a model of the real world... ' (p371)
Here Dawkins is suggesting we don't see objects, we see models of objects.
Admittedly the word 'unvarnished' warns us not to take this literally.
Nevertheless the assertion is conceptually disordered for our notion of models
is derived from our perception of objects. An infinite regress is produced if
we then assert that our perception of objects is a model. The point that he is
trying to make is that when a developed human (and no doubt many other animals
as well) perceives objects the perceiver itself contributes a great deal to
what is perceived to the point that a perceiver may be deceived or deluded.
Human memory and imagination is evidence that a perceiver can perceive an
object in the absence of the object.
The color problem is a variant of the mind-body problem. Dawkins cites it as a
problem that may be irresolvable in principle (p.47-48). This seems
inconsistent with his view that there is only material. The color problem can
be dealt with according to the conceptual structure outlined above and I will
not discuss it except to point out that we do compare the vision of different
perceivers. We do say that some people are colorblind or see in black and
white. Proponents of the color problem should contrast the means by which we
arrive at such conclusions with their arguments that such conclusions are
I will finish this discussion on the mind-body problem with just a few more
remarks. (A more thorough discussion is accessible at:
'This suggests that a tendency to dualism is built into the
brain ...' (p180)
It makes no more sense to say we are natural dualists than to say we are
natural sun-worshippers. The dualism Dawkins refers to can be understood as
empathy i.e. as our ability to identify with others. This, one would expect, is
a natural human ability because it seems necessary to a society of high-order
I have argued above that there is only a real world. This point of view is not
realism, however, because its key assumption is that we are objects that
perceive the real world. It is best termed 'perceivism'. It supports thoroughly
the notion of natural cause -- there is no God and no self that initiates cause.
It removes entirely the ghost religious entity that is the spirit, mind,
consciousness or soul. The religious awe of the self's presence in the real and
the need for a 'soul God' to unite infinitely lonely souls is replaced by the
mysterious unity of all people, all livings things, and all objects in the real
that we perceive.
There are some less significant issues in 'The God Delusion' that deserve
Species have evolved rather than been designed and consequently can show very
poor 'design'. An obvious example is human childbirth. It may be that this form
of childbirth was significant in the evolution of human intelligence but to
modern humans it is painful and risky to both baby and mother. It would earn
any intelligent designer the sack. Poor 'design' is explicable in evolutionary
terms. Unfortunately Dawkins fails to emphasize this. On the contrary, he
quotes Richard Lewontin with reserved approval:
'... it is virtually impossible to do a better job than an
organism is doing in its own environment.' (p164)
Dawkins himself presents as inconsistent. He writes:
'...natural selection punishes wastage of time and energy'
'I have discussed examples in other books: the recurrent
laryngeal nerve, for one, which betrays its evolutionary
history in a massive and wasteful detour on its way to its
Dawkins, I think, could give this matter a fuller and more effective treatment.
Dawkins' chapter 'What's wrong with religion?' is too kind. The notion that we
are souls responsible to God through an intermediary human authority is awful
in principle not just occasionally in practice. (Removing the intermediary
authority amounts to deifying one's own conscience and that too is an awful
The God/ self concept of morality regards the self as a free agent able to
initiate cause. It follows from this that individuals can be expected to
conform to social and religious dictates i.e. to be perfectly responsive to
language. Religion is disparaging of notions of natural behavior for these
weaken the notion of personal responsibility. In contrast to this, biology
treats all living things as objects subject to natural cause. Language, and
communication in general, is seen as causal. Humans are treated as social
primates with extremely influential language. Religion, therefore, opposes a
causal explanation of human behavior -- it opposes the biological view in
The religious view becomes contentious at the boundary where natural behavior
ceases to respond to language. For example, the lunatic or retarded soul,
according to the usual Christian reckoning, is doomed to Hell for all manner of
misdemeanors. But we generally think it pointless to judge the insane (our legal
and moral reckoning tends to be secular/ biological in tenor), and Christians
tend to be sotto voce or pragmatic about it. But if a pragmatic abandonment of
principle is acceptable, what becomes of these souls and at what point does
divine vengeance kick in? The extremes of life, which are natural to a
biologist, likewise present religious problems. Does a senile soul go to Heaven
or Hell senile? How is the soul of a baby to be judged? The viewpoint that gives
meaning to these questions is thoughtless, incoherent and morally abhorrent.
The debates over sexuality also lie at this boundary. The gay lobby's opponent
is religion and so it emphasizes nature (but risks conceding that it would be
wrong to choose to express gay sexuality). The religious lobby emphasizes
choice i.e. the ability to respond to their demands. Ironically, the religious
lobby also likes to call homosexuality unnatural as if neither God nor our
rebellious animal nature supports it -- a reckoning that makes gay sexuality
perverse beyond belief. As it is, gay sexuality appears to be well within the
human norm, statistically speaking, and is unexceptional for primates.
Reproduction is not the sole function of human sexuality. Unfortunately, human
modesty and the desire for sexual privacy has enabled religion to establish and
maintain absurdly extreme views -- that sex is solely for reproduction in a
union sanctified by God, for example. Religion has the effect of preserving
public ignorance and making inquiry into sexuality difficult.
While ever religion asserts that people are souls susceptible to divine
judgment, while ever it idealizes human susceptibility to language but denies
their biology generally, it cannot deliver decent moral judgments. It is not a
good conceptual abode for those with a high determination to be decent.
Religion obstructs a biological understanding of ourselves and is stupidly
brutal by comparison to it. This is putting it gently. Contemporary religion
shows that now, as in the past, savages can have dignity, a mild manner and
It is worth adding that the notion that science is morally neutral and only
related to morals in its application is a thoughtless disparagement of
science's great quest to understand objects. The primary understanding of
science is that humans can comprehend objects (at least to some extent and to
very great effect). Humans succeed in comprehending objects by seeking and
gathering evidence. In pursuit of the aim of comprehending objects scientists
have discovered a great principle of truth-seeking -- 'Distrust thyself!' This
does not sit well with the supposedly humble religious fundamentalist with his/
her tiny shard of supposed divine knowledge. To deal with this problem
scientists have developed procedures such as the double blind experiment.
Scientists demand that experiments be reproducible. They discard authority and
anecdote. Science has a profound moral force that a religious understanding can
easily recognize. It also has extraordinary accomplishments to back it up. This
is not to suggest that understanding objects is the over-riding moral objective
for humanity although it is a very significant one. A biologist would relate the
range of our moral intuitions to our nature as evolved highly communicative (and
therefore social) primates.
There are no political benefits of religion as such. The future of politics
lies in biological understandings, not in the notion that we are souls visiting
the real under the dictatorship of God. The fact that there are no non-religious
societies does not speak for the survival value of religion or for any
mysterious or supernatural merit of religion. Religion is ever present because
it has retained its place in human concepts up to the present time. It is human
rationality that has survival value and merit and religion has been integral to
that rationality. The erosion of religious understandings has seen religion and
rationality separating such that religion now attacks rationality and promotes
faith and belief for its own sake. We are seeing religion abandoning
understanding in favor of its own organizational survival.
I conclude firstly by asserting that Homo sapiens is a potently rational animal
and that its religions are at heart rational. There is even rationality in the
escape into faith for it reflects a crisis in reason: the mind/ soul seems both
indefensible and undeniable. Faith in this context is not a psychological
problem; it is not a delusion. It is a last resort and it's a resort that I
think good hearts and honest 'minds' would be glad to leave; glad too not to
have to defend bad history, bad science and bad morals.
I conclude finally with a thank you to Richard Dawkins.
(c) Lawrence Trevanion 2007
III. 'HEIDEGGER, TECHNOLOGY AND TIME: REVIEW OF THE FILM THE ISTER'
BY MATTHEW DEL NEVO
In 2004 two young Australian film-makers, David Barison and Daniel Ross,
premiered a film they'd made entitled The Ister at the International Film
Festival in Rotterdam. Since then the film has been getting shown at film
festivals and conferences around the world. The Ister is the old name for the
river we know as the Danube. It is also the title of a famous poem by Hegel's
friend and contemporary, Holderlin. In 1942 Martin Heidegger gave a course of
lectures on Holderlin's poem der Ister at the University of Freiburg in
southern Germany where he was professor of Philosophy. Heidegger had been
lecturing on Holderlin since the early 1930s. Heidegger's lectures on der Ister
were translated into English and published in 1996.
At the start of the film an on-screen text states the film has been made to
accompany Heidegger's lectures of 1942 on Holderlin's poem. This is important.
The film is neither about Heidegger's lectures as such, nor about the river;
nor is the film a documentary. The film is an accompaniment, literally. It
operates as a film in a rather novel manner, analogous to the way, in a
previous century, a poem was set to the accompaniment of piano or some other
instrument. According to this analogy, the musical instrument and setting is
the film; the 'poem' is Heidegger's lecture course. The film does not therefore
offer either an introduction to Heidegger or to his lecture course. Having said
that, one will certainly learn something of both Heidegger and the core ideas
of the lecture course from the film, if one is not already familiar with them.
Just as the setting of a poem is musical, this film which 'accompanies' the
lecture course is itself philosophical.
The viewer is taken during the course of a 3 1/2 hour journey from the mouth of
the Danube at the Black Sea in Romania to the source of the Danube. The film
follows a natural and sensible structure of a journey which is also a quest.
The quest gives the film a resonance with all the great quests of literature
(from Homer on) as well as Heidegger's quest for origins in philosophy, and his
rethinking of philosophy from ostensible origins. The film also resonates with
Heidegger's mode of thinking -- the question -- pointed as it always is toward
the essence in the sense of origin, historically and ontologically. When we
arrive at the source of the Danube near the end of the film we discover the
actual source is disputed and that one can go 'upstream' from the source in
various directions. The film-makers avoid trite philosophical point-scoring
about this, they prefer to express some wry humour at the fact. However, once
again, it inevitably reminds us of the subject, Heidegger, whose exploration of
the sources of Holderlin's great river and land poems in Greece, do not discover
a pure univocal philosophical origin.
The 3 1/2 hour film is broken into five parts divided after 102 minutes by an
Intermission. Part One takes us from the mouth of the Danube through Romania
and the former Yugoslavia (just after the fall of Slobadan Milosevic). In Part
Two we travel through Hungary. After the intermission, Part Three takes us from
Vienna to Mauthausen concentration camp. The film tackles National Socialism,
through which the course of the river, Heidegger's life, and the lectures all
ran, historically speaking. Then in Part Four we travel up river from the
concentration camp to the Hall of Liberation in Germany at Kellheim. At
intervals the screen flashes up 'distance from source', as happens on an
aeroplane with regard to destination. Part Five of the film takes us from the
Hall of Liberation to the source. Each part of our journey as a viewer we are
accompanied by a guide. The guide speaks to the camera answering questions we
don't hear. We witness them philosophising in the present, as it were. The
whole film is subtitled. Barison and Ross are not seen.
The guide who dominates the film is Bernard Stiegler who has written a book in
French entitled, Technics and Time. The other three guides accompany us for
a short while only. They are Jean-Luc Nancy who takes us through Hungary in
Part Two, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe who accompanies us in Part Three from Vienna
to Mauthausen concentration camp, and the thespian Hans-Jurgen Syberberg who
accompanies us through the upper Danube to the source in Part Five. Stiegler
reappears at various stages of the journey. He gives us strong and clearly
expressed ideas. Stiegler does not talk about Heidegger's thought as such, but
he talks about that of which Heidegger thinks: time and technics; a stance
towards the matters themselves is the one Heidegger always advocated and
himself practised. Unlike Stiegler, Nancy and Lacoue-Labarthe come across, at
least to me, as typical academic French intellectualisers rather than thinkers
in Heidegger's sense. Luckily for the viewer we do not get either guide for
long. Stiegler, on the other hand, is absolutely charming and keeps the viewer
focussed and interested on the journey with well-articulated insights that
belong to his own journey -- parallel to Heidegger's, but different in key
respects -- in search of the origins and philosophy and culture. Syberberg, our
final guide, is famous for a controversial 7 hour film on Hitler that he made in
the 1970s. You can see that this good looking man in his 60s is charismatic and
fascinating, with a beautiful speaking voice, even though he doesn't seem to
manage to say quite what he wishes to say in English. However, we get the gist.
Much of the film we see the river itself and we see something of what Heidegger
meant about it being appropriated by technics. The river is often lined with
dilapidated warehouses, decaying industrial sites, war-torn buildings. Almost
from first to last there are signs of war. We see broken bridges in Milosevic's
Serbia and recently rebuilt bridges. We see a lot of mess and debris, rather
than old castles, though these feature in glimpses. There is no romanticism in
the film, nothing of a travelogue about it. The film is concrete rather than
symbolic. Nevertheless, the river comes across as featuring the things
Stiegler, often in voice-over, is saying about time and technics. The film
gives us a real sense of the amazing age of this landscape and of the
mythological origins and history of violence on both banks and behind the
attempts to bridge and dam it. At the same time there is a sense of perennial
human striving, of human struggle and hope.
My experience of the film is that we will watch it with expectations that we
have when we watch a documentary; but that ultimately the film exposes these
expectations because they are consistently not met. We should not be tempted to
blame the film, for not obeying the laws of genre; but I think we should look
further into the film. At this point we will begin to realise the film is a
philosophical work in a Heideggerian manner. The Ister has philosophical themes
of course, but so do many films that it would be incorrect to call works of
philosophy. The Ister is Heideggerian because it does not just try to represent
philosophy (although inevitably it does this), it tries to be philosophical. Of
course what it is to be is the Heideggerian question. For the film-makers
Barison and Ross, the question translates in the film's way of being which is
neither abstract, obscure or pretentious, as philosophical films so often are,
but as I've said, very concrete.
At the end of the film, in the Black Forest where Heidegger wrote Being and
Time (1926) in his hut at Todtnauberg, we see, at last, the beauty of the
origin and hear Heidegger read the poem he loved and knew so well, der Ister.
Then we are left just with a still of the river further downstream flowing to
the sound of a Schubert impromptu. This is an extremely thoughtful,
thought-provoking and thought-worthy film that needs to been seen more than
1. Heidegger, Holderlin's Hymn 'Der Ister', tr. William McNeil and Julia Davis,
Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1996.
2. B. Stiegler, La technique et le temps. Tome 1: La faute d'Epimethee (1994);
La technique et le temps. Tome 2: La desorientation (1996). Time and Technics
1: The Fault of Epimetheus, Stanford CA: Stanford University, 1998.
For details about obtaining the film see http://www.theister.com
(c) Matthew Del Nevo 2007
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