P H I L O S O P H Y P A T H W A Y S ISSN 2043-0728
Issue number 40
8th September 2002
I. 'On the Three Cultures - a view from the philosophical side' by
III. 'What is Philosophy For?' by Ben Basing
III. 'The Grandfather Paradox' by Geoffrey Klempner
I. 'ON THE THREE CULTURES - A VIEW FROM THE PHILOSOPHICAL
SIDE' BY HUBERTUS FREMEREY
1. On the "Two Cultures" of Scientists and Humanists
In his famous Rede Lecture of 1959 the English author (Lord) C.P. Snow
(1905-80) compared "two cultures" that in his opinion seemed to be peopled by
two different sorts of intellectuals, who didn't talk the same language and
therefore could not understand each other. One culture was that of classical
erudition and "men of letters", those philosophers, theologians, jurists,
poets, literary critics and writers of all sorts, who seem to define what the
concepts "erudition" and "culture" are all about. The other culture is peopled
by scientists and engineers and "men of practical achievement" like managers
and politicians and officers and public officials who are "mere practitioners"
and not "thinkers".
With his lecture Snow was reacting to the "Sputnik Shock" caused by the launch
of the Sputnik by the USSR in November 1957. In his opinion the Sputnik was
made possible by the high value and importance the Soviet Union attached to
practical and scientific knowledge in its educational programs on all levels.
The typical "intellectual" - while having and expressing his opinions on
everything - seemed unaware (and even defiantly and proudly so) of the
scientific and technical (pre)conditions that more and more define our modern
world and that which is in the making.
This situation seemed comparable to that in China around 1900: The old
Confucian mandarins clinging to old wisdom and its tradition were unaware of
modern technical possibilities which they likewise despised, but then China
fell prey to western colonial powers and later to the Japanese. The traditional
disdain of western intellectuals for all things technical and practical and
scientific was as unjustified, stupid and dangerous as the complacency of the
Chinese mandarins had been for China some 60 years back and the whole system of
education and curricula had to be reformed in the West just as it had been under
the Meiji-Tenno in Japan, lest the communists of Russia and China with their
"enlightened" faith in modern science and technology take over.
Of course this "enlightened" faith in modern science and technology had its
origins in Western Europe and in the USA of the 18th century and was only
adapted by the Russian and Chinese communists later on. In 1851 Queen Victoria
opened the first great World Exhibition in London, then "the fabric of the
world". The modern steam engine was put into practical application in 1776, the
steam ship was invented 1805, the first steam-powered locomotive started the age
of the railways in 1825, and the age of electricity began in the 1860s. So the
second part of the 19th century was the era of intensive industrialization in
Europe and the USA, and the Russian Revolution of 1917 - like the Sunist and
Maoist Revolutions in China of 1911 and 1949 and like the Meiji-Revolution in
Japan - were late and desperate tries to keep up with the western technical
Against this historical background, the intellectual arrogance Lord Snow chided
in his Rede Lecture has to be seen as part of a deeper resistance of
conservative thinking against the whole thrust of "modern thinking" and the
spirit of "transforming the world by applied science and engineering"
altogether. It is then no coincidence, that the resistance against
modernization grew first in the most advanced countries.
The struggle between the members of the "Two Cultures" - Scientists and
Scholars - thus in its roots goes back to the timeless struggle of
conservatives against progressives, of deep moral scepticism against the
optimism of "people of action and progress". And much of the common European
and Asian hatred of the USA and of modern liberalism and communism - which are
both children of the hopes of Enlightenment - only mirrors this pessimistic (or
realistic?) resistance against the (false?) hopes and promises of "progress by
science and technology". The arrogance of the elderly and conservative
"mandarins" answers the arrogance of the youthful modern "progressives".
But this picture is a simplification. As the "Marcusean Revolt" and the
"Student Revolt" of the 60s made clear, the issues at stake are more
complicated: The Revolt of the Sixties was a revolt in the name of a new "real"
life of love and tenderness, of peace and mutual understanding and social
justice to be realized all over the world by a new youth against a dumb and
mechanistic and mindless "progressivism of the elderly". So it's not always the
conservative and the churches and mullahs that defend human ideals against
"mindless modernism and progressivism".
2. Is there a symmetry between the "Two Cultures"?
Lord Snow in his lecture tends to assume some symmetry between scientific and
technical knowledge on the one hand and the "knowledge" of artists and poets
and "spiritual masters" of all sorts on the other. But this symmetry does not
exist and its assumption is an important misunderstanding.
It is mostly a "why" that haunts pensive people. The question "why?" is the
question of freedom and existence: "Why are we here? Why should we do this and
not that?" etc. "Why is it, why should it be?" is totally different from "What
is it, what must it be?" and from "How is it, how must it be?" The natural
order showing up in the laws of nature is, what it is. But the order of a human
society, the social and moral order, is not what it is, it is the outcome of
human understandings and misunderstandings and of human design.
Of course people are and should be interested in "facts" concerning the world
they live in. But they have to take those facts for granted. What really is
disturbing people are the questions of freedom, the ethical questions: "Why
should we do this and not that?". The questions of ethics, of "what should we
do and why, and what should we do not - and why not?" are totally different
from the questions of physics and engineering. There cannot be a symmetry then,
and in this Lord Snow was just plain wrong.
3. Should and could there be a "Third Culture"?
The above applies to the concept of a "Third Culture" too - and by the same
argument. The "Third Culture" is a term coined by Snow himself somewhat after
his Rede Lecture to indicate what was needed in his opinion: a third culture
peopled by men and women trained or at least acquainted to both cultures - that
of the "humanists" and that of the "scientists" - combining their approaches and
insights to a new way of seeing the modern and coming world. The term itself was
made known to a larger public later on (1989) by the then bestselling book of
John Brockman 'The Third Culture'. Brockman made readers aware of a new species
of "learned people" that are engaged in very modern ("leading edge") scientific
fields (like computation and robotics, micro-biology and bio-engineering,
high-energy physics, cosmology, nano-technology etc.), who think on the
problems of a world in the making but are mostly unknown to the old "erudite"
and "well read" people trained in the classical faculties of "philosophy,
theology, law and medicine".
But the dream of a new "Third Culture" never materialized. The serious
popularizers of the wonders and horrors and dangers of modern technical
"progress" - many of them Nobel laureates in one of the scientific categories
of that prize - are hardly ever aware of the meaning or importance of modern
philosophical or theological arguments, and maybe not even interested too much.
The same applies vice versa to the members of the old faculties as
representatives of "the old wisdom". They usually not only don't know too much
of modern and forthcoming scientific and technological results, but they are
not even really interested. But there are Commissions with members of both
The concept of "making people aware of imminent problems" - problems hard to
grasp and hard to evade, veiled or not clearly discernible now - is an old one.
During the 1960s there evolved what is called "technology assessment" (TA) to
study the possible impact of new technical devices and technologies on society,
economics, politics, the environment etc. But this approach - while sensible and
important - should not naively be overestimated. Prognostics and futurology,
trend and impact analysis and even science-fiction are all different sorts of
TA. But then of course Marxism was some sort of grand social TA too, and the
warnings of Herbert Marcuse and of the Club of Rome have been likewise. There
are dangers everywhere and what is new is always risky. If the atomic industry
should have been stopped, why not the computer industry, the television
industry, the avionics industry, the automobile industry, the electrical
industry, the steam engine, the printing press and the using of numbers and
letters before? Of course one has tried that.
One can become sensitive to some dangers - and that's it. The debates on the
dangers of nuclear energy and on those of global warming and of globalization
are important, and those on the dangers of "green" and "red" genetic
engineering and of PID and of the possible criminal uses of computers even by
the police and the politicians etc. are likewise. All these debates remain open
debates that by the very nature of the problems debated cannot be closed
definitely. So the term "The Third Culture" in practice designates only a
special and important branch of TA concerning some leading edge technologies.
But that does not imply that those people inhabiting the Third Culture are more
"wise" than the older "intellectual elites. They remain specialists in their
relative fields and "technical advisors to the men and women in charge of
Of course there is one great difference in the quality of some actual debates
on our future: The Atomic bomb was the first weapon in history that made the
self-destruction of mankind a real possibility. And now with genetic
engineering and with microcomputers and nano-technology the possibility to
change the very nature of man becomes a real possibility too. That is scaring
us - and it should be.
4. Philosophy and the mysterious concept of progress
Now here we are back to the center of philosophy: "What is the nature of
humankind - and what should it be?" That is a typical philosophical question
that no mathematical or physical argument can answer. It is one of the deepest
of those "why questions" commented on above. If we are able to do nearly
everything, our top question should be, "What shall we do with our abilities -
The question of what should be done can never be answered by a reference to
facts. That would be "the naturalistic fallacy" (G.E. Moore). Facts always are
circumstantial and instrumental. Facts are to be respected, but they don't
force us to go this way and not that one. While it may seem "natural" to be out
for wealth, lust and power, the monks and nuns in Christendom, Islam and
Buddhism vow "poverty, chastity, and obedience" without being forced to do so.
There is pride and there is humility - which may be the greater one. There is
this exemplary scene of the proud king asking the humble saint, a scene which
appears in several cultures in different versions. So the very deep question
not asked by the people of the Third Culture remains: What should be the true
values of mankind: "Wealth, lust and power" of all sorts or "honesty, love and
authenticity" - to name but one possible alternative set of values.
The greatest danger of Enlightenment from the beginning around 1700 till today
always remains some thoughtless and ignorant inability of most scientists and
engineers to get at a deep and complex understanding of the concepts of
"improvement" and "progress": "Improvement in what sense?", "progress to what
end or goal?" What indeed does it mean to "improve" oneself? What does it mean
to "improve" society? In what way does it matter? Why should it be important?
What do we aim to - and why? Lest all these questions seem empty we should
always ask what is it, that makes the monks and nuns vow "poverty, chastity,
and obedience" without being forced to do so - and without being fools or
Philosophers and theologians as representatives of "the old intellectual
elites" despise the "naturalists" and the "secular humanists" and "pragmatists"
as clinging to "flat" concepts of reality, to concepts, that appeal to the men
and women in the street, concepts that are decidedly "democratic" in that they
seem to confirm the "common sense" and repudiate any deeper understanding as
"elitist". A "deep" concept of reality is - like the Platonist and the
Neo-platonist one - a concept that is not restricted to mere facts and rules
and laws and effects, but which sees the world as one great cosmos giving sense
and importance to the eternal human striving for "the good", "the true" and "the
beautiful", not being content with the pleasant and convenient solutions that a
mere intelligent animal would prefer.
But this seemingly elitist stand is not necessarily undemocratic in itself:
What the Buddha said or what Jesus said surely is not "common sense", but it is
not complicated or unacceptable or unintelligible to the common man and woman
either. So there is a difference to be made - a decisive difference - between a
superficial and convenient simplicity and a deep and fundamental one. The great
works of Bach and Mozart and Beethoven are "simple" in a way that is totally
different from and even incompatible with any mere "spa music", and the great
works of Rembrandt or of Picasso are likewise incompatible with any mere
cosyness or pleasantness. So the concept of "simplicity" and "intelligibility"
in itself is a very deep and disturbing one.
There are some very deep riddles in human goals and values and concepts of the
self and of the world we are living in which cannot even be approached without
reference to religious and philosophical ideas and experiences, but which
cannot be dismissed as mere sentimentalities or superstition either. As one
critic of behaviorism once put it aptly: "After giving up the unjustified
anthropomorphic concept of rats we now tend to fall to a rattomorphic concept
of man." And this sort of thinking in chains of cause and effect without any
real understanding of what the deeper longings of the human soul are aiming at
is the great danger of scientific and technical thinking and should be held in
check everywhere and by all means.
Of course there should be improvements in the way we handle war and violence
and poverty and famine and illness and injustice and human indifference and
other evils of all sorts. The promises of the Enlightenment are indeed great
hopes for mankind. But ours is a time when by the very progress on the
technical fronts not only new dangers but the deep paradoxes of the concept of
a good life become visible for a growing number of pensive people. It is these
paradoxes that tend to evade the bright scientists and engineers while they
eagerly "improve life conditions". And it is these paradoxes that are the
traditional field of the "old intellectual elites".
(c) Hubertus Fremerey 2002
II. 'WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY FOR?' BY BEN BASING
The next Philosophical Society of England London Group meeting will be upstairs
in 'The Globe' in Covent Garden (opposite the Opera House). On the Third Monday
of each month we start at seven, break at eight and "end" at nine, thought
there is of course no obligation to leave immediately. Sorry if I appear over
keen to repeat this, but every time we move someone somewhere loses contact and
ends up in a group of one. (Mathematicians allow for groups of one, I'm not sure
if Philosophers do.) I mentioned the new venue to one such "group" the other
night - having not met for many months and a few ideas set me off. I hope some
of the ramblings below will prompt ideas that you will bring along (in your
head or even on paper) I will endeavour to ensure that anyone who wants to
speak has the opportunity to do so - in my usual non-intrusive style!
If philosophy is for something is it possible that philosophers might achieve
Is a love of wisdom analogous to a love of justice that should prompt us to
behave differently and change the world, or is it like a love of music (or
curry) that we might simply enjoy philosophy for it's own sake? Unlike
engineering or even writing poetry, philosophy seems to be very open ended. We
don't produce conclusive answers, just more questions. Is this helpful?
Our discussion in the pub the other day suggested philosophers keep an open
mind. Marx and Darwin both developed new ideas without feeling compelled to
stick to established principles, yet each could now be seen as a founder of new
explanatory theories that (of course) are now being modified, developed, even
attacked. If discussing UK politics we were to limit our thoughts to which of
the half dozen candidates should get my vote every few years based upon the
published manifestos, University Political Theory departments would hardly be
needed, but if we are trying to work out how to live best (either as
individuals or societies) are we really looking for "The answer"? (Why) do we
think it is there to find? Einstein's physics gives better predictions than
Newton's (though most of us use Newton's most of the time in "real life"). If
we accept Popper's definition of science, one day there will be an explanation
- like a one minute mile - that, whilst not proven, is better than we will ever
need. So why keep on looking? Is ignorance bliss?
Do you really belive that the apparently solid objects all around you are
mostly empty space? Is beauty a real attribute of "things out there", or a
necessary reaction between your mind and whatever it is that might be out
there, or just your mind doing it's own thing? People (notably Kant) have
devoted a lot of time to finding out, but could we ever know? And if we did
know, what use is the knowledge?
Half the point of Pub Philosophy is, presumably, the pub. Does this mean our
little group has got further than being a footnote to Plato? (What, really!?)
See you on Monday 16th.
London Group Co-ordinator
Meetings of the London Group take place on the 3rd Monday
of each month, starting 7.30 pm. Everyone is welcome to
Tel: 01923 451197
(c) Ben Basing 2002
III. 'THE GRANDFATHER PARADOX' BY GEOFFREY KLEMPNER
I remember in school once we were asked to write a short science fiction story
for General Studies. Underneath my effort - about people escaping by rocket
ship from a dying planet and colonizing pre-historic Earth - the teacher
scribbled, 'Nice try, but you did telegraph the ending somewhat!' (I'd called
my story 'Evolution'.)
The winning tale was of altogether different calibre. A group of explorers
travel by time machine back to the Stone Age. Stumbling over a small
settlement, they are attacked with clubs and spears, and one of the travellers
pulls out his gun. No sooner has the bullet found its target then the traveller
begins to fade away.
"You must be...!"
Yes, he had indeed shot one of his own ancestors. (Far less of a coincidence
than first appears, given that each of us has four grandparents, eight great
grand parents, sixteen great great grandparents, and so on.)
What brought this memory back was that three weeks ago I received an unexpected
commission to write a short essay about time travel and the time travel
paradoxes. (See 'Ask a Philosopher' answers page 18 for a couple of neat
answers from Hubertus Fremerey and Steven Ravett Brown to a question I posted
there.) I'm looking for all the help I can get - any tips will be fully
acknowledged. The finished essay will be posted here.
The philosopher David Lewis, in 'The Paradoxes of Time Travel' ('The Philosophy
of Time', LePoidevin and Macbeath Eds. OUP 1993) pours scorn on my schoolmate's
solution to the Grandfather paradox. In Lewises version, a time machine
traveller kills his Grandfather a year before his father was born. But as Lewis
points out, this involves a glaring logical contradiction:
"No Grandfather, no Father; no Father, no Tim; no Tim, no
killing. And, for good measure, no Grandfather, no family
fortune; no fortune, no time machine; no time machine, no
What are the alternatives? You go back in time, but only as a disembodied
observer. Then granddad lives. You go back in time, but every effort you make
to kill granddad is thwarted by a series of increasingly improbable accidents.
(As you are about to shoot the sniper's rifle with telescopic lens, a bee
stings you in the hand, and so on.) So he lives. You go back in time to a world
exactly like this world up to the point where you appear in your time machine.
Then grandad (your grandad) still lives, it is only 'grandad' in the
alternative universe who dies.
Here is what I want to say. But I am aware that a lot of people will not like
this solution, which depends heavily upon philosophical considerations about
You, Tim, go back in the past to a year before your father was born. At the
moment when you materialize, the past that you recall, the past you read and
heard about and saw in family photo albums never existed. You never existed.
You not thirty-seven years old, you are one minute old. Of course, it is
impossible for you to believe this. But it is a logical fact about memory that
'memories', however vivid, can be false. Bertrand Russell once considered the
irrefutable sceptical hypothesis that the universe was created by an evil demon
five minutes ago, together with ourselves and our apparent memories.
You are one minute, two minutes old. You can do anything. If granddad dies,
then his son son never lived, so there never was a 'Tim'. (The same is true of
the time machine which Tim built. There never was a family fortune, and the
time machine was never 'built'.) That's fine because your memories of 'Tim',
your father, your granddad are all false. If you chicken out and go back to the
present you cannot resume Tim's life, because Tim is not you. If you murder Tim
and take over Tim's life that still will not make you Tim. So you might as well
shoot granddad now and kill two birds with one stone...
Any thoughts on this? As I have a deadline to meet, I'd appreciate hearing from
readers any time during the next week. Please send your suggestions, comments or
objections to: email@example.com, subject: 'Time Machine'.
'Ask a Philosopher' answers page 18:
Geoff asked: "I am interested in the idea of time travel, as described in H.G.
Well's novel 'The Time Machine'. Is time travel consistent with the laws of
logic? How would a philosopher explain the time travel paradoxes?"
(c) Geoffrey Klempner 2002
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