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PHILOSOPHY PATHWAYS electronic journal


P H I L O S O P H Y   P A T H W A Y S                   ISSN 2043-0728

Issue number 144
17th June 2009


I. 'On the subjective nature of Reality, and its relationship to the objective 
   reality of Nature' by James Coffman

II. 'In Praise of Open-Mindedness: A Defence of Agnosticism against Dawkins' 
   criticisms' by Tim E. Taylor

III. 'Dr. Anthony Walton Harrison-Barbet: An Obituary' by Cliona Dando



I was sorry to hear of the death, on 29th May, of Anthony Harrison-Barbet 
author of Philosophical Connections, the 900 page e-text which I am currently 
converting into web pages (see Philosophy Pathways Issue number 140, 17th 
December 2008). Dr Harrison-Barbet's daughter Cliona Dando has written his 
obituary. A full 25 years before I came up with the idea of a Philosophy 
correspondence school, Dr Harrison-Barbet was supervising the studies of 
external students taking the University of London BA in Philosophy through his
'Verulam Institute' which he founded in 1970.

For this issue, Dr James Coffman, a marine biologist, has written a 
thought-provoking essay challenging the dogmatic view that science defines what
is, or is not 'real'. Scientific activity is no less objective for being the 
product of human subjectivity, which enters at many levels: for example, in the
decision over the relative importance of different lines of investigation, or 
more generally in the complex interdependence between scientific activity and 
human interests. Coffman's views will be welcomed by ecologists, as well as 
philosophers of science looking for a model of science which avoids the 
extremes of narrow scientism and easy-going relativism.

Tim Taylor takes on no less a quarry than Professor Richard Dawkins, arguing 
for a more moderate view of the God debate. The focus of the current argument 
is over the relative probability or improbability of a 'multiverse' versus the 
hypothesis of an intelligent creator. Is it more, or less likely that the 
universe supports intelligent life because billions of possible universes with 
different laws of nature exist, one of which (namely ours) was bound to have 
the required 'fine tuning', or simply because God designed it to be so? This 
seems to be one of those cases where our grasp on the very concept of
'probability' (or 'simplicity') begins to crumble. 

Geoffrey Klempner



Philosophy Pathways has been migrated to a new 'bells and whistles' list server
at Sheffield University. The new list address is:


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Geoffrey Klempner



A fundamental problem for philosophy -- perhaps the fundamental problem -- is 
the mapping of epistemology (what we know) to ontology (what is real). Although
conventional wisdom holds that this problem is solved by the scientific method, 
I will argue that this position is founded on a questionable assumption. At 
issue is the fundamental duality between the observer and the observed, which 
renders uncertain the objectivity of reality. This problem is the crux of the 
metaphysical dialectic between absolutism and relativism. The latter in turn is
the source of incompatibility between science and religion, wherein an 
absolutist stance of the one requires a relativistic stance of the other. Here 
I construct a synthesis that resolves the problem by viewing it from a 
developmental perspective.

The thesis of this essay is that sentient attention engenders intention, which 
is a final cause of Reality. Antecedents for this perspective are found in the 
philosophical discourses of Empiricism, Postmodernism, Internalism, and 

My argument is constructed using the specification hierarchy, a formal system 
of entailment that contextualizes (and thereby conceptualizes) information by 
way of the set theoretic relationship {Generic{Specific}}, alternatively 
expressed as {Vague{Definite}} or {Implicit{Explicit}}.

Since conceptual understanding and communication depend on semantics, we begin 
with definitions. Nature is defined here as the totality of the Universe. 
Reality is defined as the empirical part of Nature. This gives the 
specification hierarchy {Nature{Reality}}.

A cause is a condition upon which the entailment of a given phenomenon depends.
Such conditions can be parsed into the four Aristotelian causal categories: 
material, efficient, formal, and final. Material cause is the physical 
substance of which a phenomenon is composed. Efficient cause is the action that
produces the phenomenon. Formal cause is the organizational constraint that 
affords occurrence of the phenomenon. Final cause is the function that the 
phenomenon fulfills. Each causal category is a necessary, but alone 
insufficient, part of the explanation for any given phenomenon; a complete 
explanation requires all four categories.

 Development is defined as any trajectory of change that transforms relatively 
indeterminate a priori probabilities (or possibilities) into more determinate a
posteriori probabilities (or actualities). It is thus formally the same as 
measurement, the subjective process through which information is obtained. 
Development is modeled by the specification hierarchy {Implicit{Explicit}}, 
wherein indeterminate (implicit) lower levels engender higher levels via 
material and formal causes, and determinate (explicit) higher levels entrain
lower levels via formal and final causes (with formal causes mediating between 
material and final causes). The corresponding specification hierarchy for 
measurement is {Entropy{Information}}, where entropy is the information 
theoretic metric for information capacity or uncertainty, and information is 
the quantitative reduction of that uncertainty provided by measurement. Note 
that both development and measurement entail selection or choice, defined here 
as an active agency (efficient cause) that reduces the number of alternative 
configurations or degrees of freedom.

 Attention is the act of selectively focusing on one thing at the expense of 
others; thus like development and measurement it manifests choice. Intention is
purposeful attention, which can be either conscious or unconscious, with 
consciousness defined as language-dependent sentience.

We can thus restate our thesis as {Attention{Intention}}. From this we see that
the scope of intention is limited by that of attention. Note however that the 
scope of action motivated by intention is not so limited: any given choice has 
both intended and unintended consequences. We therefore extend our thesis by 
saying that the latter are indicative of inattention (or ignorance).

We now ask: what is the nature of scientific knowledge, and how does this 
affect human Reality?

Suppose that the existing cultural/ socio-economic/ political 'powers-that-be' 
were to dissolve, providing an opportunity for a fresh outlook on the nature of
Reality. We might use that opportunity to choose which assumptions we wish to 
retain going forward. The specification hierarchy {Nature{Reality}} indicates 
that a fundamental assumption of classical western science -- that Reality is 
an objective or 'external' representation of Nature unbiased by perception -- 
rests on the presupposition that all of Nature is empirical. Given that animal 
evolution involves sensory-dependent semiotic adaptation to specific ecological
niches (the 'Umwelt' of Jakob von Uexkuell), this presupposition seems unlikely 
to be true even with advanced technological augmentation of our nervous systems.
Indeed, the formal similarity between {Nature{Reality}} and {Entropy{
Information}} suggests that Reality can be thought of as a specific signal 
received amidst a wider background of 'noise' in Nature. Since reception of 
that signal both depends on and varies with individual experience, it might be 
better (or at least safer) to assume that Reality is a subjective and (to the 
extent that it is shared) consensual model of Nature constructed 
developmentally. This subjectivity is implicit in our definition of Reality as 
that part of Nature that is empirical.

Let us examine the costs and benefits of adopting this alternate worldview, 
which I will refer to as 'developmental internalism'.

The first thing to note is that we retain Science as a tool for construction, 
verification and interpretation of Reality-based knowledge. All of our formally
self-consistent, empirically verified theories remain valid as working models of
Nature. In assuming the subjective nature of Reality we are not denying the 
objective reality of Nature; we are simply acknowledging that our access 
thereto is biased and limited; i.e., that many aspects of Nature are, and may 
always be, empirically unknowable. Thus, the changes wrought by our new premise
are actually more subtle than we might initially have feared. The main 
difference is that from the perspective developmental internalism, we define, 
through our experience (and hence our activity), that part of Nature which is 
empirical; therefore the nature of Reality depends on us.

What we do lose is the overconfident sense of certainty regarding the literal 
truth of our view through Reality's window on Nature. While this may be 
somewhat unsettling, it should engender humility, an important counterbalance 
for what we stand to gain:

For acknowledging that Reality depends on us engenders a sense of empowerment. 
Unlike the externalist view, which fosters a bleak existentialism wherein life 
is devoid of meaning, the internalist perspective views human intention 
(purpose) as being a final cause in the ongoing construction of Reality, thus 
providing a foundation for humanistic ethics that can inform the choices made 
in that construction. Viewed internally, humanity is not an incidental extra on
the stage of the Universe; we are front and center, the star of our own show.

Furthermore, by acknowledging the fact that Reality is subjective, 
developmental internalism engenders empathetic understanding, the basis for 
Christian forgiveness and the humanistic goodness epitomized by Atticus Finch, 
who said: 'You never really understand a person until you consider things from 
his point of view... until you climb into his skin and walk around in it' (from
Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird).

Developmental internalism also engenders a closer sense of connection with and 
responsibility for our ecological environment, which is as dependent on us as 
we on it (the basis of agriculture). This mutual dependency stems from the fact
that development of our environment is entrained by Reality, which establishes 
final cause via the agency of human Intention. Recall however that this agency 
also produces unintended consequences extending from ignorance or inattention; 
for good or ill, we reap what we sow. The relationship {Attention{Intention}} 
therefore behooves us to limit our actions to local scales commensurate with 
our limited attention span, and to refrain from overextending ourselves 
economically in time and space (as occurs in a global economy). From the 
internalist perspective there are no economic 'externalities' that can be 
ignored, and we are more likely to attend to the ecological impact of the 
choices we make in developing our environment, thereby reducing the margin for 
unintended consequences.

Finally, developmental internalism encourages us to consider the possibility 
that vague, intangible and irrational aspects of Nature -- those aspects that 
are generally eschewed by science but approached by art and mysticism -- are 
just as 'real' as the tangible and rational aspects. Given the subjectivity of 
Reality, we can no longer justify ignoring or downplaying these aspects simply 
because they are resistant to objectification within the framework of our 
current scientific models. Healthy skepticism approaches such matters with 
agnosticism, not outright dismissiveness; commitment to the latter requires an 
overconfident level of certainty (such as is engendered by externalism). So, 
with developmental internalism we are more apt to pay closer attention to 
experiences that we don't understand, or can't describe, much less control (e.g.,
emotions and anomalous empirical events or phenomena).

This lack of control does appear to present a conundrum for our thesis: what do
we make of those aspects of Reality that, like gravity, appear to be beyond our 
control? Unlike in lucid dreaming, we cannot fly simply by intending it. 
Moreover, we have to eat and drink, and since we are animals this requires that
we use our nervous systems to search out and procure food and water; and 
meanwhile, if we don't pay attention to what is out there, it might eat us. 
These empirical facts meet our definition of Reality; and do they not also 
indicate that Reality is objective and external to us?

The answer is no -- they simply indicate that Reality is a reliable 
representation of some aspects of Nature. This doesn't make Reality any less 
subjective, nor does it require that it be external to us: there are many parts
of my body that I am not aware of and can't control; and some of these parts 
might even become cancerous and eat me. Yet there was never any question that 
these are internal to 'me'. Thus, the internality of Reality is not 
contradicted simply by lack of awareness or control. This becomes even more 
apparent when we realize that our bodies are not static objects, but rather 
dynamic systems (dissipative structures whose material components are 
continually turning over) maintained only by a continuous flow of matter and 
energy from our environment, and hence not in any way disconnected there from.

So the question is: where (or why) do we (choose to) draw the line between
'internal' and 'external'?

One obvious choice would be to draw the line at the limits of our individual
'self', which we might define as our body, mind, or ego. But on close 
examination this line appears to be subjectively fuzzy, given that it is 
entirely dependent on development. For, where would 'I' draw the line as a 
zygote? Would 'I' draw it at the boundary of the inner cell mass that will 
eventually become me (or me and my identical twin if that mass of cells happens
to split in two), or at the expanding edge of the zygotic trophectoderm that 
interpenetrates with the lining of my mother's womb to form my/ her placenta? 
And even after I am born and the cord is cut, where would I draw the line as an
infant? Clearly the ability, motivation, and choice of where to draw the line 
are developed, and this is undoubtedly dependent upon development of individual
ego. But the latter is a psychological phenomenon, not a strictly material one: 
it is possible to have a fully developed body and an undeveloped ego (or even 
multiple egos at different stages of development, as in 'dissociative identity 
disorder'!). The perception of the line between self and non-self is thus 
subjective and entirely dependent on psychological development.

Of course, some continue to argue that objective individuality originates at 
conception with the unique combination of genes created by union of sperm and 
egg. But here we have to note that the genetic 'individual' does not arise de 
novo, but rather is assembled through the recombination of assorted bits of 
information, DNA sequences that have been passed to us, in many ways unchanged,
from distant ancestors that were very different from you and me. Moreover, the 
individuality of an organism doesn't strictly correlate with genetic identity, 
as shown by the empirical facts of genetically identical twins on the one hand 
and genetic mosaics (single individuals developed from the fusion of two or 
more genetically distinct zygotes) on the other. So why choose to draw the line
at conception? We are all related and part of a continuous living lineage; life 
on earth is in fact a single biological being, each creature a branch of the 
genetic tree (or more accurately, intertwining bush) whose roots extend into 
the primordial soup. Genomes are nothing more than records of biological 
information, and since information requires development of an interpretive 
frame of reference to convey meaning, I would argue that drawing the line at 
individual genetic identity is subjectively dependent on a psychological frame 
of reference, which continues developing throughout the course of one's 

But what about our experience of spatiotemporal separation? What is this space 
between you and me? The span of time between me and my ancestors? The gulf of 
light years between our world and the next galaxy? What do these empirical 
facts signify if not an external reality?

These questions are answered in part by Einstein's General Theory of Relativity,
which shows that space and time, so clearly differentiated in subjective 
experience, are really just different manifestations of the same thing. Their 
differentiation depends on a subjective frame of reference and is scaled to the
speed of light, upon which human perception largely depends.

Quantum entanglement provides additional evidence that 'objective Reality' 
cannot be dissociated from subjective experience. In this, Schroedinger's Cat 
recalls Berkeley's Tree. Even if we do not accept the Copenhagen Interpretation,
Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle and Bell's theorem establish that Nature 
is quite unlike the objective Reality of classical science: either it is 
fundamentally non-local, or objective reality doesn't truly exist (or at least,
is empirically inaccessible, which for intents and purposes, is the same thing).

Every empirical phenomenon that can be modeled manifests information, upon 
which construction of the model depends. The information used to construct the 
model is obtained by measurement, which involves choices that generally (and 
perhaps necessarily) disturb the phenomenon being measured. In science, 
measurement of some aspect of a phenomenon typically requires that it be 
isolated by artificially controlling other aspects (for example as is done in 
genetics by inbreeding), usually within the confines of a laboratory. The 
information manifested by the phenomenon itself is obtained by development. In 
light of this, the fact that quantum phenomena (at least appear to) obtain 
information through the act of measurement suggests that in quantum mechanics 
at least, measurement and development are not only formally the same, but are 
actually the same thing.

What then is the nature of the Reality? And how is Reality connected to Nature?

It appears to me that the connection exists within the vague universe of 
possibilities (potentiality) that gave/ gives rise to everything (note that 
modern cosmology holds that even the 'vacuum' is not truly empty). 
Spatiotemporal separation and differentiation manifest development, which 
occurs whenever formally possible via growth and evolution of thermodynamic 
(flow-driven) processes. Growth is engendered by circuitous mutuality (positive 
feedback) between processes, whereas evolution is entrained by {{intentional}} 
interference (negative feedback) between processes. The latter occurs as 
functional redundancy leads to competition for limited resources, a selective 
agency that increases determinacy. Development produces the empirical 
complexity of Nature, transforming generic potentiality into specific 
actualities (e.g. as in {organic chemistry{biology}}). For any given 
spatiotemporally differentiated (i.e. developed) frame of reference, a subset 
of Nature's possibilities is closed out, providing limitations, while another 
subset is made accessible, providing opportunities. For sentient frames of 
reference, the existence of such limitations and opportunities is implied by 
the specification hierarchy {Attention{Intention}}.

From this we can conclude that Nature creates a multitude of interdependent yet
interfering Realities. Indeed, it doesn't even make sense to talk about a single
human Reality, given the deep socio-economic, cultural, and psychological 
differences that divide the many factions and individuals of our species. 
Nevertheless, all of these variant human Realities are founded on a common set 
of well-developed empirical facts (e.g., the facts of death, gravity, 
combustion, electromagnetism, nuclear fission and fusion, and the Second Law of
Thermodynamics), and development wrought by scientific elucidation and 
technological use of some of these facts has (for good or ill) negotiated an 
even broader consensus.

We can now extend the specification hierarchy with which we began, as follows: 
{Nature{Reality{Scientific Knowledge}}. Scientific knowledge (and its 
contemporary alter-ego, technology), being a specified sub-domain of Reality --
viz., that which can be modeled using empirical facts and formal systems of 
entailment -- is limited not only by the subjective nature of Reality, but also
by the fact that it deals only with those aspects of Reality that are logically 
constructed. The only way around this is to assume that all of Nature is 
empirical, which is unlikely on the grounds given above, and that science is 
capable of modeling all empirical phenomena, which is even more unlikely given 
the probable ubiquity of singular irreproducible events in Nature. Unless we go
out on a limb to make these additional assumptions we can only surmise that 
science constructs from Reality an explicit idealization of Nature that 
sacrifices both its implicit vagueness and many of its explicit particulars.

I conclude that any scientific model developed from the classical assumption of
objective Reality is at best an oversimplified caricature of Nature, and that 
unregulated development of technological applications based on literal 
(externalist) interpretations of such a model will invariably have unintended 
consequences that are both ecologically deleterious and dehumanizing. The 
modern world provides abundant empirical evidence supporting the veracity of 
this conclusion. The internalist perspective advocated here offers a departure 
from further unrestrained development in that direction.

I thank Stan Salthe and Ron Coffman for providing helpful comments on early 
drafts of this manuscript.


Berry, W. Life is a Miracle: an Essay against Modern Superstition. 2000, 

Buss, L.W. The Evolution of Individuality. 1988, Princeton University Press.

Jaynes, J. The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. 
1976, Houghton-Mifflin.

Popper, K.R. A World of Propensities. 1997, Thoemmes Press.

Rosen, R. Life Itself: A Comprehensive Inquiry into the Nature, Origin, and 
Fabrication of Life. 1991, Columbia University Press.

Salthe, S.N. Development and Evolution: Complexity and Change in Biology. 1993,
MIT Press.

Ulanowicz, R.E. A Third Window: Natural Life beyond Newton and Darwin. 2009, 
Templeton Foundation Press.

(c) James A. Coffman 2009

E-mail: jcoffman@mdibl.org

Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory



In The God Delusion[1] Richard Dawkins sets out to refute arguments for the 
existence of God and to present a comprehensive case for atheism, rejecting not
only theism but also agnosticism. This article seeks to defend agnosticism 
against Dawkins' arguments.

Dawkins begins by discussing the potential spectrum of belief between theism 
and atheism. He describes a seven point scale, reflecting the probability which
subjects attribute to the existence of God[2]. Point 1 reflects strong theism: 
being 100% certain that there is a God; and 7 represents strong atheism: 100% 
confidence that there is no God. Point 4 is completely impartial agnosticism, 5
is 'technically agnostic but leaning towards atheism', and 6 is 'de facto 
atheism' -- attributing to the existence of God a very low probability, but 
short of zero (2 and 3 are mirror images of 5 and 6). Dawkins scores himself as
a 6, but leaning towards 7: 'I am agnostic only to the extent that I am agnostic
about fairies at the bottom of the garden.' Dawkins' scale is helpful in showing
that belief in God, and thus agnosticism and atheism also, can be a matter of 
degree. It also supports his main argument against agnosticism.

Dawkins rejects the views of Steven Jay Gould[3] and others that science cannot
comment on the existence of God. He argues that a universe with a creative 
superintendent would be very different from one without, and therefore sees no 
reason why the existence of God should not be treated as a scientific 
hypothesis. Dawkins' case for rejecting that hypothesis and embracing atheism 
breaks down into four main steps, which can be summarised as follows:

S1. The fact that we can neither prove nor disprove the existence of God does 
not imply that the existence and non-existence of God are equally probable: 
some non-disprovable things are sensibly judged far less probable than others. 
For example, Bertrand Russell[4] has pointed out that we could never disprove 
the proposition that there is a teapot in an elliptical orbit around the sun 
(too small to be seen by any telescope), but we would not be agnostic about such
a proposition[5].

The remaining steps form part of a later chapter which argues against theism 
and creationism[6], but in combination with S1 comprise an argument against 
agnosticism also.

S2: 'The Argument from Improbability'. However improbable the entity one seeks 
to explain by invoking a designer, the designer himself has got to be at least 
as improbable. On the other hand, natural selection provides a model for how 
organised complexity can emerge from simple beginnings without any deliberate 

S3: 'The Anthropic Principle: Planetary Version'. Since we exist on Earth, it 
must be the kind of planet capable of generating and supporting us, however 
unusual that might be. The combination of conditions which allow Earth to 
support life, and the chemical events which led to the origin of life, may 
collectively be very improbable. But there are estimated to be at least a 
billion billion planets in the universe. So even if the conditions and events 
which led to the origin of life on earth are so improbable as to occur on only 
one in a billion planets, life will still have arisen on a billion planets in 
the universe. Thus there is no need to postulate a God to explain how this 
highly improbable event might have occurred.

S4: 'The Anthropic Principle: Cosmological Version'. Several fundamental 
constants of physics, such as the magnitude of the strong nuclear force, appear
to be finely-tuned, in that if they were slightly different the universe would 
be comprehensively different and presumably unfriendly to life[7]. A universe 
in which those constants are all favourable to the origin of life thus appears 
highly improbable. However, any God capable of fixing the constants to make 
them favourable for life would himself be highly improbable. A simpler, and 
thus less improbable, solution is the hypothesis that there are many universes,
('the multiverse'), in which the values of the fundamental constants are 
different. Just as we could only be discussing the problem on a planet capable 
of generating and supporting us, we could only do so in a universe where the 
constants were favourable to the emergence of life.

How far do these arguments go towards establishing Dawkins' position? Looking 
first at S1, in conjunction with Dawkins' seven point scale of belief in God, 
this makes the valid point that one does not have to be at the very end of the 
scale, to be absolutely certain that there is no God, to be an atheist. It is 
sufficient that one be satisfied that the existence of God is highly improbable.
But how improbable? As a scientist, Dawkins would presumably agree that, in 
the pursuit of truth, it is important to maintain an open mind between 
competing hypotheses until one has good reason to commit oneself to one of them.
There comes a point when one has to make that commitment, and Dawkins is 
right that this point comes some way before the achievement of certainty, which
is rarely, if ever, possible. The commitment is something more than merely 
considering one hypothesis more likely than the other(s). It is a matter of 
regarding the question as settled, of no longer entertaining rival hypotheses 
at all. One might keep at the back of one's mind the thought that, short of 
achieving absolute certainty, no question is ever irrevocably settled. 
Nevertheless there is an important difference between recognising that a belief
one has committed oneself to could conceivably be overturned, and not making 
that commitment at all. The key issue, then, is at what point it is reasonable 
to relinquish open mindedness between different possibilities and commit 
oneself to one particular view.

The answer may perhaps vary according to circumstances. But it seems to me that
in any scenario the point should fall some way beyond that at which one merely 
favours one hypothesis over another. A good rule of thumb might be, borrowing a
famous legal phrase, to make one's commitment when the matter is settled beyond 
reasonable doubt. Returning to Dawkins' preferred language of probability, this
would imply that one should not reject alternative hypotheses until one regards 
them as having a very low probability. Not zero, and perhaps not quite as low 
as Russell's teapot. But very low, none the less. So the bar is set quite high 
for S2-S4. They must give us reason to believe that the existence of God is 
very improbable indeed, and this is what Dawkins aims to do.

S2 can be taken on more than one level. At the most basic level is the point 
that positing God as an explanation of some observed phenomenon immediately 
raises another question: how did God himself come to exist? Here I take Dawkins'
side against the views of some theists that we can simply avoid the question 
by supposing that God has always existed: a God who has always existed calls 
for explanation no less than a God who has come into existence. Thus 
hypothesizing the intervention of God can never, on its own, be a complete 
explanation of observed phenomena. In considering divine intervention against 
other candidate explanations of observed reality, we need to consider not only 
how well the hypothesis of divine intervention fits the case, but also the 
plausibility of the hypothesised deity itself.

So far, so good. However, Dawkins claims, and his argument requires, rather 
more than this. He regards S2 as a trump card: however improbable the observed 
complex phenomenon, a being capable of having designed it must be even more 
complex and more improbable. This is a very strong and contentious claim. 
Dawkins himself points out that in nature complexity can be generated from 
simple beginnings. This supports his position insofar as it shows that we do 
not need to invoke divine intervention to explain the complexity we see in the 
world. But it seems to tell against S2's claim that a being capable of 
designing a complex system must be even more complex. If complexity can emerge 
from simpler origins in one context, what basis do we have to assume that it 
cannot do so in another?

Before looking at S3 and S4 individually, it may be helpful to consider the 
force of the anthropic principle invoked by both arguments. This principle 
deals with the apparent improbability that conditions favourable to life 
occurred in the particular circumstances in which we find ourselves. Any beings
in a position to consider the problem, it says, must necessarily have emerged in
circumstances conducive to that emergence. If it was not improbable that life 
should have emerged at all, the anthropic principle offers an explanation of 
why it occurred here. However, if it was improbable that life should have 
emerged at all, it is important to note that the anthropic principle does not 
deal with that improbability.

Seen against that background, S3 is a powerful application of the anthropic 
principle. Dawkins is conservative in his estimate of the number of planets in 
the universe and generous in his assessment of the improbability of life 
occurring on any particular planet. Nevertheless, the universe is so vast that 
the odds of life occurring somewhere seem very high. Since the emergence of 
life on at least some planets in the universe does not appear improbable, the 
anthropic principle kicks in to show why we should not be surprised that we 
live on one of them, and need not invoke divine intervention to explain why 
Earth is so well-suited to the emergence of life.

As Dawkins recognises, we live not only on a planet, but in a universe that 
seems tailor-made for the emergence of life, and he needs a further argument, 
S4, to deal with this. But where S3 is strong S4 is much weaker. There is ample
evidence on which to base an estimate of the total number of planets in the 
universe, and we know enough about biochemistry to make informed judgements 
about how difficult it was for life to get started. So S3's claim that it was 
highly probable that life would emerge somewhere is based on firm foundations. 
There are no comparable foundations for the analogous claim in S4. It has been 
argued that there is evidence for the existence of other universes in, for 
example, work on quantum computing[8], but as yet there is nothing on a par 
with the uncontroversial evidence that supports S3. Moreover, if there are 
other universes, there is no evidence that any of these have different 
fundamental constants from our own, as S4 requires: indeed, it appears that the
main reason for positing other universes with different fundamental constants is
precisely the existence of the 'fine tuning' problem itself. Such reasoning can 
hardly carry much weight in a debate between competing solutions to that same 

So in considering the fine-tuning of our universe for the emergence of life, we
cannot have the same level of confidence that we did regarding the fine-tuning 
of our planet that it was highly probable that somewhere or other conditions 
would turn out to be favourable, thus allowing the anthropic principle to come 
into play. The existence of other universes with different fundamental 
constants is conceivable, and in conjunction with the anthropic principle would
solve the fine-tuning problem. But that is not, I submit, enough to settle the 

Dawkins would reply: 'Yes, but compare it to the alternative. Whatever you say 
about the multiverse, it is less improbable than the God hypothesis as an 
answer to the fine tuning problem.' Which brings us back to S2. As was 
discussed above, S2 is reasonable up to a point: invoking divine intervention 
as a solution to a problem requires us to consider how the deity might have 
come to be there in the first place. However, I do not believe that Dawkins has
a sound basis for his 'trump card' claim: that however improbable the phenomenon
requiring explanation, divine intervention must be more improbable. Agnostics do
not have to accept the baggage associated with any particular version of the God
hypothesis. Perhaps an omniscient, omnipotent personal God who designs every 
detail of the observed world would indeed be more improbable than any 
phenomenon he might be invoked to explain, but we do not have to be agnostic 
about that, or about natural selection versus creationism (a question which I 
regard as settled beyond reasonable doubt in favour of the former).

An argument analogous to S2 applies to any hypothesis invoked in explanation, 
including the multiverse. If we wish to posit the multiverse as a solution to 
the fine tuning problem, then we are also obliged to consider the issues 
associated with the putative existence of the multiverse itself: not merely the
idea of multiple universes simpliciter, but more specifically (for the purposes 
of S4), a multiplicity of universes in which:

-- the fundamental constants have different values in different universes;

-- there are a sufficient number of different universes, each with different 
fundamental constants, to make it probable that there is at least one in which 
the constants are favourable for the emergence of life.

This raises a number of questions. Where do the other universes exist[9]? By 
what mechanism are their fundamental constants set, and what is the reason why 
they differ from one universe to another?

So are these more or less difficult questions than those which face the God 
hypothesis? Which is more probable? Personally, I tend towards the view that 
the hypothesis of divine intervention as a solution to the fine tuning problem 
is more unlikely than the alternatives. On Dawkins' seven point scale, I place 
myself at 5: 'agnostic but leaning towards atheism.' I suspect that the 
apparent fine-tuning of our universe for the emergence of life has an 
explanation (whether the multiverse or something else) which does not involve 
divine intervention, and that if we ever arrive at a complete picture of the 
universe(s), it will turn out not to have God in it.

Why, then, do I 'sit on the fence', as critics of agnosticism like to sneer, 
rather than embracing atheism? The important point is that I do not regard the 
question as settled. I do not believe there is sufficient basis to turn my 
suspicion that there is no God into a firm conviction. Dawkins' argument rests 
upon probabilities. But since I reject his claim that a God must be more 
improbable than anything one might invoke it to explain, it is not clear to me 
that we have any basis on which to make firm attributions of probabilities to 
either the God hypothesis or its alternatives.

Just as one does not require absolute certainty to be an atheist, one need not 
be completely ambivalent to be an agnostic: one can favour theism or atheism 
without regarding the issue as settled. Important things flow from committing 
oneself to a particular hypothesis: one ceases to take the alternatives 
seriously; and, whether consciously or not, one ceases to be impartial in 
interpreting evidence. There is always a point at which one has to make such 
commitments, but it is important to remember that there is also a cost. 
Open-mindedness is a great virtue in pursuing truth, and is not to be abandoned

The debate about the existence or non-existence of God is fought out largely 
between protagonists in entrenched positions on both sides. Dawkins is right to
criticise those agnostics who stand on the sidelines and say that the question 
can never be answered. It may be that it will never be settled, but it is not 
immune to evidence and logical argument. Perhaps as our understanding of the 
universe grows it will give us better reasons to embrace theism or atheism. In 
the meantime, this is a debate that desperately cries out for open-mindedness, 
for a willingness to suspend final judgement and assess the implications of 
each piece of emerging evidence in a neutral way. It is, in other words, a 
debate that needs agnosticism.


1. Dawkins, R., (2006), The God Delusion, Bantam Press.

2. ibid., pp73-4.

3. See for example Gould, S.J. (1999), Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in 
the fullness of life, Ballantine.

4. Russell, B., (1997). "Is There a God?". in Slater, J. & Kollner, P., The 
collected papers of Bertrand Russell. Routledge. pp542-548.

5. Dawkins, pp72, 74-7.

6. Dawkins, pp137-80.

7. See Rees, M (1999), Just Six Numbers, Weidenfeld & Nicholson.

8. See, for example, Deutsch, D (1997), The Fabric of Reality, Viking,
Chapter 2.

9. There are various possibilities: for example that they exist 
contemporaneously in space, but each universe moving away from the others at 
more than the speed of light, so none is observable from any other (see Tegmark,
 M, "Parallel Universes", in Barrow, J.D., Davies, P.C.W., and Harper, C.W. 
(eds) (2003) Science and Ultimate Reality: From Quantum to Cosmos, Cambridge 
University Press.

(c) Tim Taylor 2009

E-mail: tim.e.taylor@talk21.com



Dr. Anthony Walton (Tony) Harrison-Barbet M.A., D.Phil.; philosopher, writer, 
teacher, lecturer; died peacefully on Friday, 29th May 2009, in the Bon Secours
Hospital, Cork, Republic of Ireland, aged 70, having lived with prostate cancer 
for eleven and a half years.

Tony was born on 12th March 1939 in the Royal Northern Hospital, Holloway, 
North London, elder son of Rupert Harrison and Doris (nee Barbet), and brother 
to Richard. His childhood was notable for the large number of schools he 
attended -- eight in all. The frequent house moves of his parents necessitated 
these changes, and he found this all to be disruptive and unsettling. Of all 
the schools he attended (including The Collegiate School; Keble House; 
Montpelier College; and Reigate Grammar School) it was at St Alban's School, 
Hertfordshire that he was most happy and successful, and this school remained 
important to him throughout his life.

After his A-levels in 1957, and a short time working for ICI paints division, 
Slough, in his own words 'by one of those life-changing moments of serendipity'
he found himself applying to, and accepted at, Trinity College Dublin to study 
Natural Sciences. However, in 1959, in under a year of studying, he had come to
a major decision -- he would become a philosopher instead, and it was a 
philosopher he remained thereafter.

He switched courses at TCD, and to raise funds to support himself he worked for
five months in the packing department at Harrods, and then taught English at the
Berlitz School, Krefeld, West Germany. During his vacations he also worked at 
the Berlitz School in Dublin, and at the Amusements on Brighton Pier as 'Dr 
Love'! It was while in Brighton that he met the writer and mystic E.H. Visiak, 
who proved to be hugely influential in the shaping of Tony's career.

During the summer holiday of 1964, just before his degree finals, he 
hitch-hiked to the West of Ireland and on Achill Island he met Maeve Duggan. 
They were engaged six weeks later, and married in Cork in August 1965.

He obtained his M.A. from TCD, gaining a 2:1, and now he needed to accrue some 
funds to allow him to become a research student, and ultimately, his lifetime 
aim, a university philosophy lecturer. Initially they moved to Essex, where 
Tony taught at  a small private school in Woodham Mortimer. In 1966, on gaining
a D.A.A.D. scholarship, they were able to move to Gottingen in West Germany, 
where Tony embarked upon studying the works and notebooks of Georg Christoph 
Lichtenberg (1742-99) a German scientist, satirist and aphorist, who in Tony's 
words 'linked the mystical Neo-Platonism of the Renaissance to emergent 
Romanticism' and who 'anticipated with striking originality ideas 
characteristic of much 20th century philosophy.'

In 1967, with more funding established, and sufficient notes made at Gottingen 
University, Tony continued his studies by moving to Magdalen College, Oxford, 
under the excellent supervision of Isaiah Berlin.

With two small children now (Cliona, born in Gottingen, and Morwenna, born in 
Headington) finances were tight, and Tony did a fair amount of private tuition 
to make ends meet. He also worked for Wolsey hall, Oxford, teaching A-level 
logic, and philosophy for external students studying the London University B.A.

By 1969, however, it was obvious that a full-time job was needed to support his
family, and his Lichtenberg research had to be shelved for a few years. Tony 
accepted a post at Westbourne House School for boys, a preparatory school near 
Chichester, West Sussex, and remained here until 1988, teaching physics, 
chemistry and biology, as well as athletics, directing/ producing plays, being 
a house-master, and becoming Director of Studies. In 1970 his son, Tristan, was

In addition to his full-time teaching post, in 1970/ 1971 Tony set up three 
establishments: 'Verulam Tutorials', a board of tutors, including himself, 
providing private tuition for Common Entrance, O- and A-level students; 'The 
Verulam Institute', providing summer schools for Wolsey Hall philosophy 
students; 'The Verulam Society', an informal philosophy discussion group.

The name 'Verulam' came from the Latin name for St Alban's, 'Verulamium', and 
Tony chose for his establishments the motto 'Multi Pertransibunt et Augebiter 
Scientia' -- 'many will pass through and knowledge will be increased' -- from 
the title page of Novum Organum by Francis Bacon, Viscount of St Albans. And 
many did pass through, and knowledge was increased!

The first president of the Institute was Christopher Chataway, and over the 
years there were some very eminent visiting speakers:

1971 E.R. Emmet, author of 'Learning to Philosophise'
1972 Colin Wilson, who gave the 'E.H. Visiak Lecture'
1973 Michael Moran, Lecturer in Philosophy at Sussex University
1974 Dr Lubor Velecky, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at Southampton University
1975 Alexander Thynne, Lord Weymouth of Longlete (later becoming the Marquess 
of Bath); he superseded C. Chataway as the president of the Institute.

Some of these acquaintances proved to be very useful. It was Michael Moran who 
encouraged Tony to return in 1974 to studying part-time for his D.Phil. at 
Sussex University. Dr. Lubor Valecky was also the Chief examiner in Philosophy 
for the International Baccalaureate. He invited Tony to become an examiner for 
the IB, and this he became, marking exams and extended essays for many years, 
and after a short while being promoted to Senior Examiner.

In 1972 an American liberal arts college, New England College, was set up, near
Arundel, West Sussex, and Tony became a part-time Lecturer in Philosophy there 
until 1975, when philosophy was removed form the syllabus. In 1973 he became a 
Tutor in Humanities for the Open University, teaching for the 'Age of 
Revolutions' course, running regular seminars in Worthing. And in 1976 he was 
appointed a part-time Tutor in Philosophy at Sussex University. So while 
studying for his D.Phil. he was also at last realising his ambition of teaching
at a university.

In 1981, with Ronald Taylor (Professor of German at Sussex University) having 
been his tutor, he was finally awarded his doctorate for his thesis Conflict 
and Integration: a Study in the Philosophy of GC Lichtenberg, 1742-1799. He 
proudly carried the title of Dr. for the rest of his life.

In the late seventies or early eighties Wolsey Hall B.A. programmes ceased, and
all their philosophy course materials were handed gratis to Tony and he 
continued to provide distance learning tuition for London University B.A. 
through The Verulam Institute. He also took on work for the National Extension 
College, Cambridge. A further opportunity arose in 1985 when he noticed, 
probably in the Times Educational Supplement, that an A-level philosophy course
was to be introduced. Following an enquiry by himself, he became an Assistant 

As well as aspiring to become a university lecturer, it had long been an 
ambition of Tony to become a writer. Having always held a strong interest in 
family history, his first book was based on his great, great, great uncle, a 
patent medicine manufacturer and founder of Royal Holloway College: Thomas 
Holloway Victorian Philanthropist was completed in 86/87, and printed in 1990.

While researching for this book in 1985, a letter of his in the TES was noticed
by Macmillan Publishers, and they approached him regarding the possibility of 
his writing an Introduction to Philosophy for their 'Mastering' series. This 
Tony duly accepted, and it too was published in 1990.

In 1988 Tony terminated his employment at Westbourne House, and he and Maeve 
moved to Ireland, to allow Tony more time to do his own research and writing. 
He had for many years been making notes for his magnum opus Culture and the 
Human Condition, but unfortunately for financial reasons, he had to continue to
take on further commitments.

He continued teaching for London external B.A., and working as an examiner for 
IB and A-level. He set up his own private tutorial business, and became a 
teacher at Bandon Grammar School, initially to set up their computer studies, 
and then in 1989 as a Transition Year Teacher, covering a wide range of 
subjects. Also in 1989 he was made Honorary Visiting Fellow in the Philosophy 
Department at University College Cork, and he regularly attended (and 
occasionally presented) graduate seminars.

In 1994 Tony left Bandon Grammar School for a new appointment at The National 
Distance Education Centre ('Oscail') of Dublin City University, which proved to
be extremely rewarding, both intellectually and financially. He was based at UCC,
and held seminars, tutorials and lectures on the history of philosophy, on 
Plato, Aquinas and Kant, on the philosophy of religion and also ran the
'Introduction to Humanities' program. He continued to work for DCU for ten years.

In 1998, Tony was diagnosed with prostate cancer, his son Tristan died in 
tragic circumstances, and then Tony had a radical prostatectomy. Thankfully he 
received some relief from these three horrors: he was contacted by Professor 
David Berman of TCD, and was offered, and accepted, a part-time lectureship in 
continental philosophy. This entailed, as always, a huge amount of work, but 
Tony thoroughly enjoyed the experience -- to be back at his alma mater Trinity 
again, and as a Philosophy Lecturer, was great.

Shortly after joining the 'Oscail' of DCU, he was approached by a Michael 
Mooney of TCD. Having read Mastering Philosophy, he thought Tony might be able 
to write a series of profiles of Western Philosophers, and trace connections 
between their ideas -- a kind of intellectual history, to be entitled 
Philosophical Connections. Michael Mooney and a group of TCD graduates had 
plans to market and publish the work. After some thought Tony agreed. As the 
work progressed, however, there were times when he wondered whether he had made
the right decision. It took an enormous amount of work over about seven or eight
years, compiling profiles of 126 philosophers, with colour coded connections. 
This colour-coding system was constructively criticised by Trinity Philosophy 
Department, and Tony came up with the idea of a CD format, with hyperlinks.

Unfortunately the marketing/ publishing plans came to nought, and in 2006 it 
was all handed over to Tony. After several unsuccessful attempts at marketing 
it himself, in 2008 Geoffrey Klempner took over the project. He was the Founder
and Director of 'Pathways School of Philosophy' and not only would he provide 
all of his new students with a copy of the CD-ROM, but he also embarked on 
converting the entire text of 900 pages into HTML format, so as to put the 
entire work on the world wide web. For Tony this was fantastic -- at last all 
his hard work would be out in the world for all to see: to use, to learn from, 
and to appreciate.

Towards the end of compiling Philosophical Connections, Tony was also writing a
full-length study of E.H. Visiak's work, something Tony had promised Visiak in 
the early 1970's a few years before he died. This was published in 2007.

But all of this work was at the expense of his own great masterpiece. Sadly 
Tony died in May 2009, with only the first chapter of Culture and the Human 
Condition completed.

Dr. Anthony Harrison-Barbet was a great and confident teacher and lecturer, 
clear and eloquent and hugely patient. He was a man of great wit and sense of 
humour, renowned by all for his daily use of puns and play on words. But on a 
personal level he was also a shy, reserved and private gentleman, honest and 
just and always respectful to anyone he met, and always grateful of any 
friendship and interest shown to him.

Anything one wanted to know one could ask of him: if he did not instantly know 
the answer he would drop whatever he was doing and look it up in a book. In 
fact the most common image one would have of Tony would be of him reading: The 
Times or Telegraph, poetry, periodicals, and a whole multitude of books to 
further his knowledge. He was an avid reader, and books, along with his 
computer and his beloved music (such a wide range of music) could keep him 
happy for days on end.

But he liked his breaks from intellectual stimulation. His pride and joy was 
his garden, which he tended to throughout the seasons for the 20 years that he 
lived in Bandon. Whilst gardening and growing his own produce, he would take 
great pleasure in observing and conversing with his feline and feathered 
visitors, whom he welcomed warm-heartedly.

He turned his hand to anything, DIY, mending, building and creating, and his 
holiday cottage at Ballinacarriga in the 1970's and 1980's was a much 
looked-forward-to project for him every year, occupying him for a full six 
weeks during the summer holidays. Tony was a very accomplished cook, in recent 
years taking over from Maeve all responsibilities for shopping and culinary 
duties (but not necessarily the washing up!). He produced with skill and 
pleasure great three-course feasts for all who came to stay.  Stemming from his
love for music he taught himself how to play the chromatic harmonica, treating 
his family to a fine rendition on New Year's Eve 2008. And he loved languages, 
learning through self instruction the rudiments of many. He took great 
enjoyment while abroad in being able to speak to people in their native tongue.

Tony felt very strongly the importance of families, and was always supportive 
and interested in everything and anything any of his children or grandchildren 
might be doing. He spent a whole lifetime researching family history -- not 
just his own lineages, but those of the Duggan branches too. He has left this 
beautifully and clearly presented, both in written and CD-ROM formats; a 
fantastic legacy for future generations.

At his 70th birthday party in March 2009, despite having been extremely unwell 
for weeks beforehand, he surprised his family with an unforgettable speech 
which he had prepared in his mind, unbeknownst to anyone, on the subject of 
families. He assembled together 11 of his 14 grandchildren. Using the words of 
Matthew Arnold's poem Dover Beach -- 'Ah my love, let us be true to one another'
-- he told them that whatever different ways life takes them, they must 
always look out for each other. As always, he spoke so eloquently; his serious 
message, along with his good humour, holding his audience captive, listening to
his every word.

Although Tony would describe himself as being of no particular religion (having
partaken of the Church of England, Roman Catholicism, Agnosticism and Atheism 
during his lifetime), he was in fact a very spiritual man.

He loved nature and wild places, and enjoyed the feeling of being at one with 
and part of the 'great stupendous whole'. He was strongly influenced by the 
Church of England choral and organ music of his youth, a love for which 
remained with him throughout his life. In recent years Tony read widely on 
Tibetan Buddhism, which he found to be of great benefit to himself. And indeed,
along with his positive and happy outlook, it may well have helped him cope 
through the last few years of his cancer.

Prostate cancer undoubtedly played a large part in his life, living with it for
over 11 years. How he dealt with it was a complete inspiration to us all. As 
with everything, he read widely on the subject, and knew all there was to know 
about the disease. He would uncomplainingly suffer whatever it threw at him, 
and then pick himself up and get on with his life, even right up until his 
final weeks.

To all who ever knew Dr. Anthony Walton Harrison-Barbet, he was a very thorough
man, who always gave of his absolute best. He will be sadly missed by his wife, 
his daughters, his sons-in-law, his brother, his grandchildren and 
great-granddaughter; his family, friends and colleagues. He has passed on the 
torch to the next generation, and moved on to a new journey, as yet unknown to 
the rest of us.

Tony once pondered that at the end of his life he would '...finally escape from
Matthew Arnold's 'darkling plain' and follow Milton's 'uncouth swain' -- 'To 
morrow to fresh Woods and Pastures new'...' 

Let us hope that he finds himself there, and that the legacies that he has left
behind for us remain here for future generations.

(c) Cliona Dando 2009

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