Can you step in the same river twice? Wittgenstein v Heraclitus


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David Egan | Aeon Ideas

‘I am not a religious man,’ the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once said to a friend, ‘but I cannot help seeing every problem from a religious point of view.’ These problems that he claims to see from a religious point of view tend to be technical matters of logic and language. Wittgenstein trained as an engineer before he turned to philosophy, and he draws on mundane metaphors of gears, levers and machinery. Where you find the word ‘transcendent’ in Wittgenstein’s writings, you’ll likely find ‘misunderstanding’ or ‘nonsense’ nearby.

When he does respond to philosophers who set their sights on higher mysteries, Wittgenstein can be stubbornly dismissive. Consider: ‘The man who said one cannot step into the same river twice was wrong; one can step into the same river twice.’ With such blunt statements, Wittgenstein seems less a religious thinker and more a stodgy literalist. But a close examination of this remark can show us not only what Wittgenstein means by a ‘religious point of view’ but also reveal Wittgenstein as a religious thinker of striking originality.

‘The man’ who made the remark about rivers is Heraclitus, a philosopher at once pre-Socratic and postmodern, misquoted on New Age websites and quoted out of context by everyone, since all we have of his corpus are isolated fragments. What is it that Heraclitus thinks we can’t do? Obviously I can do a little in-and-out-and-back-in-again shuffle with my foot at a riverbank. But is it the same river from moment to moment – the water flowing over my foot spills toward the ocean while new waters join the river at its source – and am I the same person?

One reading of Heraclitus has him conveying a mystical message. We use this one word, river, to talk about something that’s in constant flux, and that might dispose us to think that things are more fixed than they are – indeed, to think that there are stable things at all. Our noun-bound language can’t capture the ceaseless flow of existence. Heraclitus is saying that language is an inadequate tool for the purpose of limning reality.

What Wittgenstein finds intriguing about so many of our philosophical pronouncements is that while they seem profoundly important, it’s unclear what difference they make to anything. Imagine Heraclitus spending an afternoon down by the river (or the constantly changing flux of river-like moments, if you prefer) with his friend Parmenides, who says that change is impossible. They might have a heated argument about whether the so-called river is many or one, but afterwards they can both go for a swim, get a cool drink to refresh themselves, or slip into some waders for a bit of fly fishing. None of these activities is in the least bit altered by the metaphysical commitments of the disputants.

Wittgenstein thinks that we can get clearer about such disputes by likening the things that people say to moves in a game. Just as every move in a game of chess alters the state of play, so does every conversational move alter the state of play in what he calls the language-game. The point of talking, like the point of moving a chess piece, is to do something. But a move only counts as that move in that game provided a certain amount of stage-setting. To make sense of a chess game, you need to be able to distinguish knights from bishops, know how the different pieces move, and so on. Placing pieces on the board at the start of the game isn’t a sequence of moves. It’s something we do to make the game possible in the first place.

One way we get confused by language, Wittgenstein thinks, is that the rule-stating and place-setting activities happen in the same medium as the actual moves of the language-game – that is, in words. ‘The river is overflowing its banks’ and ‘The word river is a noun’ are both grammatically sound English sentences, but only the former is a move in a language-game. The latter states a rule for using language: it’s like saying ‘The bishop moves diagonally’, and it’s no more a move in a language-game than a demonstration of how the bishop moves is a move in chess.

What Heraclitus and Parmenides disagree about, Wittgenstein wants us to see, isn’t a fact about the river but the rules for talking about the river. Heraclitus is recommending a new language-game: one in which the rule for using the word river prohibits us from saying that we stepped into the same one twice, just as the rules of our own language-game prohibit us from saying that the same moment occurred at two different times. There’s nothing wrong with proposing alternative rules, provided you’re clear that that’s what you’re doing. If you say: ‘The king moves just like the queen,’ you’re either saying something false about our game of chess or you’re proposing an alternative version of the game – which might or might not turn out to be any good. The trouble with Heraclitus is that he imagines he’s talking about rivers and not rules – and, in that case, he’s simply wrong. The mistake we so often make in philosophy, according to Wittgenstein, is that we think we’re doing one thing when in fact we’re doing another.

But if we dismiss the remark about rivers as a naive blunder, we learn nothing from it. ‘In a certain sense one cannot take too much care in handling philosophical mistakes, they contain so much truth,’ Wittgenstein cautions. Heraclitus and Parmenides might not do anything different as a result of their metaphysical differences, but those differences bespeak profoundly different attitudes toward everything they do. That attitude might be deep or shallow, bold or timorous, grateful or crabbed, but it isn’t true or false. Similarly, the rules of a game aren’t right or wrong – they’re the measure by which we determine whether moves within the game are right or wrong – but which games you think are worth playing, and how you relate to the rules as you play them, says a lot about you.

What, then, inclines us – and Heraclitus – to regard this expression of an attitude as a metaphysical fact? Recall that Heraclitus wants to reform our language-games because he thinks they misrepresent the way things really are. But consider what you’d need to do in order to assess whether our language-games are more or less adequate to some ultimate reality. You’d need to compare two things: our language-game and the reality that it’s meant to represent. In other words, you’d need to compare reality as we represent it to ourselves with reality free of all representation. But that makes no sense: how can you represent to yourself how things look free of all representation?

The fact that we might even be tempted to suppose we can do that bespeaks a deeply human longing to step outside our own skins. We can feel trapped by our bodily, time-bound existence. There’s a kind of religious impulse that seeks liberation from these limits: it seeks to transcend our finite selves and make contact with the infinite. Wittgenstein’s religious impulse pushes us in the opposite direction: he doesn’t try to satisfy our aspiration for transcendence but to wean us from that aspiration altogether. The liberation he offers isn’t liberation from our bounded selves but for our bounded selves.

Wittgenstein’s remark about Heraclitus comes from a typescript from the early 1930s, when Wittgenstein was just beginning to work out the mature philosophy that would be published posthumously as Philosophical Investigations (1953). Part of what makes that late work special is the way in which the Wittgenstein who sees every problem from a religious point of view merges with the practical-minded engineer. Metaphysical speculations, for Wittgenstein, are like gears that have slipped free from the mechanism of language and are spinning wildly out of control. Wittgenstein the engineer wants to get the mechanism running smoothly. And this is precisely where the spiritual insight resides: our aim, properly understood, isn’t transcendence but a fully invested immanence. In this respect, he offers a peculiarly technical approach to an aspiration that finds expression in mystics from Meister Eckhart to the Zen patriarchs: not to ascend to a state of perfection but to recognise that where you are, already, in this moment, is all the perfection you need.Aeon counter – do not remove

David Egan is a visiting assistant professor in the Department of Philosophy at CUNY Hunter College in New York. He is the author of The Pursuit of an Authentic Philosophy: Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and the Everyday (2019).

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article here.

Subjectivity as Truth


A Selected Passage

When subjectivity, inwardness, is truth, then objectively truth is the paradox; and the fact that truth is objectively the paradox is just what proves subjectivity to be truth, since the objective situation proves repellent, and this resistance on the part of objectivity, or its expression, is the resilience of inwardness and the gauge of its strength. The paradox is the objective uncertainty that is the expression for the passion of inwardness, which is just what truth is. So much for the Socratic. Eternal, essential truth, i.e., truth that relates essentially to someone existing through essentially concerning what it is to exist (all other knowledge being from the Socratic point of view accidental, its scope and degree a matter of indifference), is the paradox. Yet the eternal, essential truth is by no means itself the paradox; it is so by relating to someone existing. Socratic ignorance is the expression of the objective uncertainty, the inwardness of the one who exists is truth. Just to anticipate here, note the following: Socratic ignorance is an analogue to the category of the absurd, except that in the repellency of the absurd there is even less objective certainty, since there is only the certainty that it is absurd. And just for that reason is the resilience of the inwardness even greater. Socratic inwardness in existing is an analogue of faith, except that the inwardness of faith, corresponding as it does to the resistance not of ignorance but of the absurd, is infinitely more profound.

Socratically, the eternal essential truth is by no means in itself paradoxical; it is so only by relating to someone existing. This is expressed in another Socratic proposition, namely, that all knowing is recollecting. That proposition foreshadows the beginning of speculative thought, which is also the reason why Socrates did not pursue it. Essentially it became Platonic. Here is where the path branches off and Socrates essentially accentuates existing, while Plato, forgetting the latter, loses himself in speculation. The infinite merit of Socrates is precisely to be an existing thinker, not a speculator who forgets what it is to exist. For Socrates, therefore, the proposition that all knowing is recollecting has, at the moment of his leave-taking and as the suspended possibility of speculating, a two-fold significance: (1) that the knower is essentially integer and that there is no other anomaly concerning knowledge confronting him than that he exists, which anomaly, however, is so essential and decisive for him that it means that existing, the inward absorption in and through existing, is truth; (2) that existence in temporality has no decisive importance, since the possibility of taking oneself back into eternity through recollection is always there, even though this possibility is constantly cancelled by the time taken in inner absorption in existing.

The unending merit of the Socratic was precisely to accentuate the fact that the knower is someone existing and that existing is what is essential. Going further through failing to understand this is but a mediocre merit. The Socratic is therefore something we must bear in mind and then see whether the formula might not be altered so as to make a real advance on the Socratic.

Subjectivity, inwardness, accordingly, is truth. Is there now a more inward expression of this? Yes, indeed; when talk of ‘subjectivity, inwardness, is truth’ begins as follows: ‘Subjectivity is untruth.’ But let us not be in a hurry. Speculation also says that subjectivity is untruth, but says this in exactly the opposite direction; namely, that objectivity is truth. Speculation defines subjectivity negatively in the direction of objectivity. This other definition, on the contrary, gets in its own way from the start, which is just what makes the inwardness so much more inward. Socratically, subjectivity is untruth if it refuses to grasp that subjectivity is truth but, for example, wants to become objective. Here, however, in setting about becoming truth by becoming subjective, subjectivity is in the difficult position of being untruth. The work thus goes backwards, that is, back into inwardness. Far from the path leading in the direction of the objective, the beginning itself lies only even deeper in subjectivity.

But the subject cannot be untruth eternally, or be presupposed eternally to have been so; he must have become that in time, or becomes that in time. The Socratic paradox lay in the eternal truth relating to someone existing. But now existence has put its mark a second time on the one who exists. A change so essential has occurred in him that now he cannot possibly take himself back into the eternal through Socratic recollection. To do that is to speculate; the Socratic is to be able to do it but to cancel the possibility by grasping the inward absorption in existence. But now the difficulty is this, that what followed Socrates as a cancelled possibility has become an impossibility. If, in relation to Socrates, speculating was already a dubious merit, now it is only confusion.

The paradox emerges when the eternal truth and existence are put together; but every time existence is marked out, the paradox becomes ever clearer. Socratically, the knower was someone who existed, but now someone who exists has been marked in such a way that existence has undertaken an essential change in him.

Science as Mythology

For is it not possible that science as we know it today, or a “search for the truth” in the style of traditional philosophy, will create a monster? Is it not possible that an objective approach that frowns upon personal connections between the entities examined will harm people, turn them into miserable, unfriendly, self-righteous mechanisms without charm or humour? “Is it not possible,” asks Kierkegaard, “that my activity as an objective [or critico-rational] observer of nature will weaken my strength as a human being?” I suspect the answer to many of these questions is affirmative and I believe that a reform of the sciences that makes them more anarchic and more subjective (in Kierkegaard’s sense) is urgently needed.

– Paul Feyerabend

evolution touches god

Epistemological anarchism is an epistemological theory advanced by Austrian philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend which holds that there are no useful and exception-free methodological rules governing the progress of science or the growth of knowledge. It holds that the idea that science can or should operate according to universal and fixed rules is unrealistic, pernicious, and detrimental to science itself.

The use of the term anarchism in the name reflected the methodological pluralism prescription of the theory, as the purported scientific method does not have a monopoly on truth or useful results. Feyerabend once famously said that because there is no fixed scientific method, it is best to have an “anything goes” attitude toward methodologies. Feyerabend felt that science started as a liberating movement, but over time it had become increasingly dogmatic and rigid, and therefore had become increasingly an ideology, and, despite its successes, science had started to attain some oppressive features, and it was not possible to come up with an unambiguous way to distinguish science from religion, magic, or mythology. He felt the exclusive dominance of science as a means of directing society was authoritarian and ungrounded. Promulgation of the theory earned Feyerabend the title of “the worst enemy of science” from his detractors.

The theory draws on the observation that there is no identifiable fixed scientific method that is consistent with the practices of the paradigm of scientific progress – the scientific revolution. It is a radical critique of rationalist and empiricist historiography which tend to represent the heroes of the scientific revolution as scrupulous researchers reliant on empirical research, whereas Feyerabend countered that Galileo for example, relied on rhetoric, propaganda and epistemological tricks to support his doctrine of heliocentrism, and that aesthetic criteria, personal whims and social factors were far more prevalent than the dominant historiographies allowed.

Scientific laws such as those posited by Aristotelian or Newtonian physics that assumed the stance of objective models of the universe have been found to come short in describing the entirety of the universe. The movement of universal models from Aristotelian to Newtonian physics to Einstein’s relativity theory, where each preceding theory has been refuted as entirely universal model of reality, illustrates for the epistemological anarchist that scientific theories do not correspond to truth, as they are in part cultural manifestations, and ergo not objective. Feyerabend drew a comparison between one scientific paradigm triumphing over or superseding another, in the same manner a given myth is adapted and appropriated by a new, triumphant successor myth in comparative mythology. Feyerabend contended, with Imre Lakatos, that the demarcation problem of distinguishing on objective grounds science from pseudoscience was irresolvable and thus fatal to the notion of science run according to fixed, universal rules.

Feyerabend also notes that science’s success is not solely due to its own methods, but also to its having taken in knowledge from unscientific sources. In turn the notion that there is no knowledge outside science is a ‘convenient fairy-tale’ held only by dogmatists who distort history for the convenience of scientific institutions. For instance, Copernicus was heavily influenced by Pythagoras, whose view of the world had previously been rejected as mystical and irrational. Hermetic writings played an important role in the works of Copernicus as well as Newton. There exists fairly accurate astronomical knowledge that reaches back even to the Stone Age, measured in stone observatories in England and the South Pacific. Pre-Modern inventions such as crop rotation, hybrid plants, chemical inventions and architectural achievements not yet understood like that of the pyramids are all examples which threaten the notion that science is the only means of attaining knowledge.

Feyerabend also criticized science for not having evidence for its own philosophical precepts, particularly the notions of Uniformity of Law and of Uniformity of Process across time and space. “We have to realize that a unified theory of the physical world simply does not exist,” said Feyerabend; “we have theories that work in restricted regions, we have purely formal attempts to condense them into a single formula, we have lots of unfounded claims (such as the claim that all of chemistry can be reduced to physics), phenomena that do not fit into the accepted framework are suppressed; in physics, which many scientists regard as the one really basic science, we have now at least three different points of view… without a promise of conceptual (and not only formal) unification”.

Furthermore, Feyerabend held that deciding between competing scientific accounts was complicated by the incommensurability of scientific theories. Incommensurability means that scientific theories cannot be reconciled or synthesized because the interpretation and practice of science is always informed by theoretical assumptions, which leads to proponents of competing theories using different terms, engaged in different language-games and thus talking past each other. This for Feyerabend was another reason why the idea of science as proceeding according to universal, fixed laws was both historically inaccurate and prescriptively useless.

Physical objects are conceptually imported into the situation as convenient intermediaries not by definition in terms of experience, but simply as irreducible posits comparable, epistemologically, to the gods of Homer … For my part I do, qua lay physicist, believe in physical objects and not in Homer’s gods; and I consider it a scientific error to believe otherwise. But in point of epistemological footing, the physical objects and the gods differ only in degree and not in kind. Both sorts of entities enter our conceptions only as cultural posits.

– W. V. Quine

It appears that, in single instances of the operation of bodies, we never can, by our utmost scrutiny, discover any thing but one event following another, without being able to comprehend any force or power by which the cause operates, or any connexion between it and its supposed effect. The same difficulty occurs in contemplating the operations of mind on body- where we observe the motion of the latter to follow upon the volition of the former, but are not able to observe or conceive the tie which binds together the motion and volition, or the energy by which the mind produces this effect. The authority of the will over its own faculties and ideas is not a whit more comprehensible: So that, upon the whole, there appears not, throughout all nature, any one instance of connexion which is conceivable by us. All events seem entirely loose and separate. One event follows another; but we never can observe any tie between them. They seemed conjoined, but never connected. And as we can have no idea of any thing which never appeared to our outward sense or inward sentiment, the necessary conclusion seems to be that we have no idea of connexion or force at all, and that these words are absolutely without meaning, when employed either in philosophical reasonings or common life.

– David Hume

We see that science also rests on a faith; there simply is no science “without presuppositions.” The question whether truth is needed must not only have been affirmed in advance, but affirmed to such a degree that the principle, the faith, the conviction finds expression: “Nothing is needed more than truth, and in relation to it everything else has only second-rate value.”

Thus the question “Why science?” leads back to the moral problem: Why have morality at all when life, nature, and history are “not moral”? No doubt, those who are truthful in that audacious and ultimate sense that is presupposed by the faith in science thus affirm another world than the world of life, nature, and history; and insofar as they affirm this “other world”—look, must they not by the same token negate its counterpart, this world, our world?—But you will have gathered what I am driving at, namely, that it is still a metaphysical faith upon which our faith in science rests—that even we seekers after knowledge today, we godless anti-metaphysicians still take our fire, too, from the flame lit by a faith that is thousands of years old, that Christian faith which was also the faith of Plato, that God is the truth, that truth is divine.

A “scientific” interpretation of the world, as you understand it, might therefore still be one of the most stupid of all possible interpretations of the world, meaning that it be one of the poorest in meaning. This thought is intended for the ears and consciences of our mechanists who nowadays like to pass as philosophers and insist that mechanics is the doctrine of the first and last laws on which all existence must be based as on a ground floor. But an essentially mechanical world would be an essentially meaningless world. Assuming that one estimated the value of a piece of music according to how much of it could be counted, calculated, and expressed in formulas: how absurd would such a “scientific” estimation of music be! What would one have comprehended, understood, grasped of it? Nothing, really nothing of what is “music” in it!

– Friedrich Nietzsche

The man who is striving to solve a problem defined by existing knowledge and technique is not, however, just looking around. He knows what he wants to achieve, and he designs his instruments and directs his thoughts accordingly. Unanticipated novelty, the new discovery, can emerge only to the extent that his anticipations about nature and his instruments prove wrong… There is no other effective way in which discoveries might be generated.

If these out-of date beliefs are to be called myths, then myths can be produced by the same sorts of methods and held for the same sorts of reasons that now lead to scientific knowledge.

– Thomas Kuhn

Long before quantum mechanics, the German philosopher, Husserl, said that “All perception is gamble.”

Every type of bigotry, every type of racism, sexism, prejudice, every dogmatic ideology that allows people to kill other people with a clear conscience, every stupid cult, every superstition, written religion, every kind of ignorance in the world all results from not realizing that our perceptions are gambles.

We believe what we see and then we believe our interpretation of it, we don’t even know we are making an interpretation most of the time. We think that this is reality. In philosophy that is called naïve realism. “What I perceive is reality.” And philosophers have refuted naïve realism every century for the last twenty-five hundred years starting with Buddha & Plato, and yet most people still act on the basis of naive realism.

Now the argument is maybe my perceptions are inaccurate but somewhere there is accuracy. The scientists have it with their instruments. That’s how we can find out what’s really real. But relativity and quantum mechanics have demonstrated clearly that what you find out with instruments is true relative only to the instrument you are using and where that instrument is located in space-time.

So there is no vantage point from which real reality can be seen, we are all looking from the point of our own reality tunnels. And when we begin to realize that we are all looking from the point of view of our own reality tunnels, we find it is much easier to understand where other people are coming from. Or, the ones who don’t have the same reality tunnels as us do not seem ignorant or deliberately perverse or lying or hypnotized by some mad ideology. They just have a different reality tunnel, and every reality tunnel might tell us something interesting about our world, if we are willing to listen.

– Robert Anton Wilson

Science manipulates things and gives up living in them. It makes its own limited models of things; operating upon these indices or variables to effect whatever transformations are permitted by their definition, it comes face to face with the real world only at rare intervals. Science is and always will be that admirably active, ingenious, and bold way of thinking whose fundamental bias is to treat everything as though it were an object-in-general – as though it meant nothing to us and yet was predestined for our own use.

– Maurice Merleau-Ponty

See Also

Darwin’s Dangerous Idea

The Limits of Science

Doing Away with Scientism

Epistemology & The Soul


It was shortly after finishing the second edition of Natural Theology & Classical Apologetics that I wrote this essay. It is clear that at the time of this writing I did not possess the understanding of some of the ideas that I now have. Some ideas in this essay are oversimplified and reflect the infancy of my own understanding.

Epistemology and the Metaphysics of the Soul

by Joshua Synon

If I have a book which understands for me, a pastor who has a conscience for me, a doctor who decides my diet, I need not trouble myself. If I am willing to pay, I need not think. Others will do it for me.

– Immanuel Kant

When I began to inquire into the relationship of the body to the mind, spirit, or soul, I had no idea how deeply profound the topic really is, and how hotly debated it has been throughout history. Most people today would explain, in a very Neoplatonic way, that the human soul is analogous to a truck driver with the body being the truck. This is an ancient approach to the issue that is termed dualism in which the human being is comprised of two ontologically separate substances, namely the body and the soul. In this vitalistic understanding, the soul, the vital essence of life, is said to live on after bodily death and, hence, is the real us, the truck driver. In most cases, it seems, the soul is synonymous with the mind. But dualism is not the only view of reality prevalent in history. What evidence do we have that a soul or a vital substance that is ontologically separate from matter actually exists? Cannot the natural sciences explain self-consciousness and thought in totality? Many have thought so and, if so, then there seems to be no need to postulate a separate substance that animates our body. This latter group posits that all that exists is the material world of matter and energy.

The ancient Eastern sages did not develop great epistemological systems, mostly because they were a more practical lot, but they seem to believe the nature of the human soul to be part of a mystical grand system of order, perhaps a universal consciousness or a type of pantheism, which has moral responsibilities to other beings. They seem to presume that we are spiritual creatures. Some claim that reality is multifaceted and therefore ultimately inarticulate. The goal of the Buddhist, for instance, is to achieve a state of complete emptiness or “no-thing-ness” with only experience of the moment remaining, a completely spiritual and selfless state of being. Western thinkers, however, have attacked the notion that consciousness can exist without sense data to interpret or think about. In this case, what is one really conscious of? To answer that one is conscious of his own consciousness is only begging the question.  As soon as consciousness is conscious of some “thing” an interpretation has already taken place.

As Eastern mysticism has not satisfied the majority of Western thinkers, the West has developed grand epistemological and metaphysical systems, grounded in reason, that attempt to make sense of reality and discover the true nature and purpose of human being. In order to counter the antifoundational and relativistic thinking of the sophists, Plato (427-348 B.C.) argued that for us to even have ideas in our mind there must be an external world (a foundational reality) that we do not directly interact with where these ideas come from. The world that we experience merely takes part in or resembles this perfect and timeless world of Forms (a type of emanationism). From this he developed the notion that all knowledge is recollection. He invoked his famous allegories of the divided line and the cave to explain this point. Plato ultimately divided the soul into three parts: reason, spirit, and appetite. Reason is our rational side, spirit has to do with our will, and appetite is synonymous with our natural desires. Plato taught that reason should rule our spirit and appetite. The nature of the soul was said to be immortal and upon bodily death, then, it was said that the soul is released into this perfect reality of Forms, which later became adopted by the Christians as the concept of Heaven. This dualistic view led Plato’s followers, including said Christians, to view the body as evil or a type of prison for the soul.

Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) was by far Plato’s greatest student and, even so, disagreed with his teacher on many grounds. Aristotle was a naturalist and thus rejected the existence of a separate world of perfect Forms. He rather took the stance that the “Form” of a thing is actually in the thing itself. Aristotle posited that everything can be explained in totality in terms of four causes: material, formal, efficient, and final. The material cause is simply the substance or matter that a thing consists of. The formal cause is what makes a thing as it is. The form of a thing, for Aristotle, was synonymous with the soul. The efficient cause is simply the how of a thing; how it has come into existence, what (materially speaking) caused it to be. The final cause is synonymous with the end or purpose of a thing. Consider the example of a statue of a woman. The material cause would be stone; the formal cause a statue of a woman; the efficient cause the sculptor; the final cause the depiction of a woman for the sake of aesthetic or religious value. Aristotle had this idea that formed matter held its final cause, its entelechy as he called it, its ultimate purpose, within itself. It is the job of the formed matter to realize this purpose or entelechy. Modern functionalism is reminiscent of Aristotle’s concept of the soul.

Aristotle held that the human soul is entelechy. It is therefore incoherent to suggest that the soul could be separated from the body. Additionally, he suggested that there exist three types of soul: vegetative, sensitive, and rational. All the vegetative soul does is absorb matter from other things. Plants could be said to possess this type of soul. The sensitive soul is a step up in that it can “register information regarding the form of things, but does not absorb or become those things” (Soccio 170). Animals possess the sensitive soul. Human beings are said to possess the highest form of soul, the rational form. This form includes the other two, but goes beyond with “capacities for analyzing things, understanding various forms of relationships, and making reasoned decisions” (ibid). A human being can choose to realize his entelechy or not. For Aristotle, the soul is not a separate mystical reality such as dualism might suggest. The formed body cannot exist without the soul, and vice versa. It is nonsensical to speak of the soul without reference to a body of some sort. In effect, his approach is dissatisfying to many because it seems to deny any notion of life after death. But in all actuality, his view does not, indeed cannot, negate a personal afterlife. It simply has nothing to say of such matters. In any case, the ancient Greeks were of diverse opinion with some considering biological reproduction (or even “intellectual offspring”) sufficient to constitute the notion of human immortality.

One intriguing view that is related to Aristotle’s is termed nonreductive physicalism. This is a form of materialism, but it claims that the form of something, including mental processes, cannot be reduced to merely physical aspects. Thus, physics alone can never fully explain the universe. “Philosophers of mind call the subjective aspects of mental events qualia (or raw feels). There is something that it’s like to feel pain, to see a familiar shade of blue, and so on; there are qualia involved in these mental events. And the claim is that qualia seem particularly difficult to reduce to anything physical” (“Dualism”). There have been many attempts to explain these qualia, both physically and mentally based theories. Nonreductive physicalism seems to hold to a form of property dualism, which “asserts that when matter is organized in the appropriate way (i.e. in the way that living human bodies are organized), mental properties emerge” (ibid). Like Aristotle’s position, this position cannot say anything about life after bodily death. Any notion of an afterlife would be purely speculative.

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), an English political philosopher, was of the opinion that, “All that exists is bodies in motion.” The natural sciences and modern psychology seem to be inclined to a materialistic monism, or physicalism, which claims that matter is all that exists. In this system, mental states are reduced to nothing more than physical states. Consciousness is then merely an artificial property that we ascribe to ourselves in an attempt to meaningfully describe the interaction of various atoms and chemicals in an otherwise random and meaningless system. Colors and sounds are merely waves and vibrations that we artificially apply meaning to. It must follow that we also ascribe artificial meaning to morality, the soul, and free will.

Hobbes believed that before each decision we make, we unconsciously (and/or consciously) and mechanistically weigh a list of pros against a list of cons to decide which choice to make in a matter. We will always choose, it is claimed, whichever decision will bring the most pleasure and/or relieve the most pain, whichever decision will fulfill the strongest present desire. If we do happen to choose otherwise, it is only because we were ignorant of the opposing list, and the result is a “bad” decision. This way of thinking is reminiscent of Socrates’ view that it is impossible for a human to knowingly will evil. The trouble that I run into with this theory is in finding a basic principle that defines pleasure.

The natural schools of science such as behaviorism, eliminative materialism, and type identity theory hold that everything can be explained in full by physical laws and natural processes. As such, they are deterministic and mechanistic views that seem to deny the reality of free will and an external supernatural or nonphysical reality. Indeed, a truly free will makes no sense in a determined universe, it is quite inconceivable. If our actions are just effects of biological and physical processes, then there is no such thing as morality or responsibility. Free will is then an illusion. Atoms cannot make choices. Mind, therefore, is really matter and there is no getting past our human nature. Modern psychology has attempted in many ways to describe the human mind in purely physical ways.

Hobbes, however, was a compatibilist with regard to free will. He would define free will in a different way than most would today. Rather than claim that free will is the absolute ability to choose between two or more options concerning a matter, he would claim that free will is “a hypothetical ability to have chosen differently if one had been differently psychologically disposed by some different beliefs or desires” (“Compatibilism”). With this definition, free will is said to be compatible with a determined universe. But this definition seems to lack the complete and utter freedom that “free will” implies. It would seem, rather, that we are definitely influenced by beliefs, desires, and physical “laws,” but by no means determined. However, more problems arise when we attempt to prove the free will of beings other than ourselves.

It seems a mistake, as Hume would suggest, to generalize these laws of physics and then apply them back to human actions and claim that mankind is completely deterministic, thereby opposing the commonsensical notion of free will. As Kant argued, which we will see later, “[W]hen a theory results in conclusions that are clearly inconsistent with experience, real-world evidence must outweigh theoretical consistency” (Soccio 325). Though some people argue for a strict determinism, nobody lives as though they actually believe it. It must be noted, however, that even if the mind can be fully explained via natural processes it seems that, although it would rule out the need to invoke a soul, it cannot deny the possibility of a soul (as we will also see later).

Some claim that modern quantum mechanics lends support to the notion of free will. In the tiny world of quantum physics, it is said that events can occur without any reason whatsoever, essentially randomly. To some, this implies that not everything is determined, including the human will. But the problem here is that this would reduce free will to a purely random, chaotic phenomenon. Free will is indeed indeterminate in a sense, but it is still caused by an act of volition on the free agent’s part. Since both pure determinism and pure chaos are opposed to free will, quantum physics does not seem to lend much help to the argument for free will. It does, however, go to show that we cannot definitely state that the universe is strictly determined, thus leaving the door open for faith in free will.

René Descartes (1596-1650), a noted French philosopher, is generally considered the father of rationalism in modern philosophy. He posited that the only way to gain absolutely certain knowledge is through reason alone (i.e. a priori). He chose to doubt everything that his senses told him because he believed that they could be deceiving him: perhaps we are all now dreaming, or perhaps there is an evil demon that is deceiving us. In doing so, he started with a blank slate and his first conclusive, undoubtable claim was the knowledge that he exists as a thinking being. This thinking being, he concludes, is his mind or soul and exists independent of the body. The view is espouses is termed substance dualism, which holds that the mind and body are distinct and separate substances. Unlike much of Christendom, Descartes makes no distinction between the mind, spirit, or soul. But if the dualistic model is true, then how can the soul actually interact with the body and vice versa (save the speculative and mystical notions of occasionalism or parallelism, both of which invoke God, but have no real explanatory power)? If the mind is substantially different than the body, then why is it that when the body drinks, the mind becomes drunk? Descartes would reject the truck driver analogy in favor of a more intimately united theory with the pineal gland being the epicenter of interaction between body and soul. He then proceeds to prove the existence of a good God a priori via ontological arguments and develops a trust of his basic senses on that foundation.

While reading Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy, however, I began to ask some serious questions and found that I was not alone in my inquiry. What can a mind without a body know or even think about? Is it really possible to know anything a priori? Certainly a spirit cannot know anything a priori pertaining to bodily or sensational experience because it lacks a body itself. It has been postulated that things such as mathematics and geometry are true a priori independent of whether anybody knows this or not. But can a spirit know such things a priori? Concepts such as mathematics and time exist as human ideas of relations of objects and events, but do they actually exist in and of themselves as Plato would claim? How can mathematics or geometry be knowable in a purely spiritual or rational realm, as the are both merely descriptions of relationships between material objects of human perception? Once we invoke bodies, then mathematics seems to apply. But before that, there is nothing for mathematics to explain. It seems impossible to teach a spirit the concept of numbers or for a spirit to even think about mathematics. Indeed, I cannot think ofanything that a spirit could think about without reference to any material form. Similarly, it would seem that if we were to shut off all of our senses, we could not think of anything other than, perhaps, our past experiences while in the body. It seems, then, that experience must be the ultimate seat and cause of all knowledge. Furthermore, if a spirit cannot think about anything or know anything (besides, perhaps, past bodily experiences), and a spirit is defined as mind without body, then is it really mind? Is it not rather nothing? This is not even to mention the complex processes involved in the human brain. It seems to follow that if God is spirit, as is traditionally thought, the only conclusion to be reached is that God is nothing – nonexistent. As we will see later, Descartes failed in his attempt to prove the existence of God or even the reality of the self.

The view that all knowledge comes from experience (a posteriori) is termed empiricism and was espoused by an influential English philosopher named John Locke (1632-1704). This man came to deny the possibility of innate, a priori, ideas. He believed that human beings are born with a blank slate, a tabula rasa, which is gradually filled with sense data. Locke claims that, “Nothing exists in the mind that was not first in the senses.” He does recognize, however, along with Descartes, that we do seem to possess a substance that is separate from our body; a thinking substance. Locke divided qualities of experience into two categories, namely primary and secondary qualities. Primary (i.e. objective) qualities are those that are independent of any perception of them, such as shape, size, and location in space. Secondary (i.e. subjective) qualities are those that depend on the perceiver, such as color, sound, or taste (Soccio 290). In Locke’s epistemology our experiences are nothing more than photographs or copies of the real thing (think re-presentation). As we all know, a photograph is never equal to the real thing. Therefore, we can never experience any thing-in-itself as it exists objectively. But if everything that we think we know about external things is actually just sense data in our own minds, then how can we even be sure that there exists anything outside of our own minds (cf. solipsism)?

Ah, but what if the only thing that actually exists is mind (or will)? What if what we call reality and matter is actually an effect of, and dependent on, the mind or soul, an active product of the thinking spirit? Would this not solve our problem? George Berkeley thought so. He took Locke’s epistemology a step further to one of its extreme, albeit logical, ends. Berkeley contends that all that really exists are Locke’s secondary qualities. We cannot even say anything about primary qualities, for it would be unintelligible to attempt speaking of them. So who is to say that they exist when nobody is perceiving them? This would relieve us from looking for meaning in our existence because existence would be meaning. God would, of course, be the ultimate mind, which makes all other minds possible. If this were the case, however, it would seem that I could simply will certain things to happen, such as bending a spoon with my mind. But perhaps there are mental limits imposed by God that prohibit my mental bending of the spoon. God is what holds everything in existence while we are not experiencing it, for he is the all-perceiver. This can easily lead to a form of pantheism, such as that which Spinoza espoused. However, Berkeley failed to prove the existence of an all-perceiver. In this case, however, it seems to make absolutely no difference to our experience whether noumena exist or not, whether we label it as matter or mind. It seems that Berkeley was simply giving a different name to the same thing as the materialists.

The renowned British empiricist David Hume (1711-1776) pursued Locke’s epistemology to its furthest logical end. In his works, Hume “makes compelling arguments against materialism, the possibility of a spiritual, supernatural reality, and personal immortality… [and] challenged established religious beliefs, moral judgments, reason and rationalism, earlier forms of empiricism, and the certainty of science” (Soccio 296). He was of the opinion that neither matter nor mind exist, a complete skeptic or agnostic. He denied that we can know anything. He even denied the concept of a persisting self. When I speak of me, what am I speaking of? This thing that is doing the speaking of course. But can I explain the concept of me outside of any sensational experience? I cannot think of a way to do so, to describe my mind, or my self, without reference to my body or its perceptions. It seems, then, that the mind is inseparable from the body. We seem to be merely a bundle of sense perceptions, impressions as Hume called them, that are diluted into “ideas” (synonymous with Locke’s copy theory). If something did not come from an impression then it is meaningless. His conclusion is “that identity is not a property of things, but a mental act” (Soccio 302).

Furthermore, Hume tells us that “beliefs that cannot be reduced to sense experience are technically not ‘ideas’ at all: They are meaningless utterances” (Soccio 300). Included in these beliefs that are not empirically experienced are those of God and the spirit or soul. If my body is not different in any sense from my spirit or my self, then life after bodily death seems to be ruled out. Again taking Locke’s epistemology to its logical conclusion, Hume concludes that the only thing we can know is our own perceptions, which occur in some type of pattern or regularity to which we ascribe meaning and coherence. He denies the rationality of inductive logic, which science depends on. Induction “reasons from the particular to the general” (Soccio 304). But Hume would claim that we have no right to make that jump. This is why he rejects even seemingly self-evident concepts such as cause and effect or objective morality. David Hume’s philosophy has devastating effects on faith, reason, and science. He concluded that we can be sure of absolutely nothing. But surely nobody can consistently live a truly skeptical life. The only reason Hume gives for being able to live a normal life in light of his skepticism is that nature tends to take over and fill in the gaps when he is not thinking about it (Soccio 304). This complete skepticism really leaves us nowhere and gives us nowhere to go, not only concerning the relationship of the mind to the body, but concerning anything at all.

Thus far we have explored dualistic and monistic (both physical and mental) views of reality. However, there also exist two other less widely known views: pluralism and neutral monism. While the former posits that there exist more than two essential substances in the universe, the latter suggests that there does indeed exist only one substance, but that substance is neither material nor immaterial. Rather, this single substance is said to be neutral, capable of existing as both matter and non-matter. Some have claimed, however, that this is simply a rehash of Berkeleian idealism. Each of these, however, seem to be venturing into the metaphysical realm of unfalsifiability.

Perhaps it is again a mistake to generalize things. Strict materialism, any type of monism really, seems to be begging the question in that it defines everything that exists and is sensible as matter and natural and then claims that nothing exists besides matter and the natural. If any genuinely new type of thing were to be discovered, including something that many would deem supernatural or somehow inherently new, it could then be labeled natural, sensible, and material. Idealism seems to do the same exact thing. In this way they are both unfalsifiable and seem to be giving different names or descriptions for the same exact stuff.

Perhaps our definition of spirit as mind without body is flawed. Perhaps the soul is as complex, in some way, as the body. Perhaps we cannot properly understand the nature of spirit. As my studies continued I inevitably encountered the German philosopher named Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). Kant’s philosophy was an effect of the inadequacies of the two major philosophical schools and the deterministic implications of science in his day. The rationalists “established grand systems of logical relationships ungrounded in observation or perception,” while the British empiricists viewed “the human mind as the passive receiver of impressions and experiences” (Soccio 322-3). All the empiricists were left with in the end were ideas, which could never really bring them back to experience of external realities, the result of which was “Hume’s admission that we must believe in an external world, in selves, and in causes and effects, without ever knowing them” (ibid).

Kant saw philosophy tending toward absurd conclusions and science leading to a mechanistic universe with no basis for free will or morality. Moreover, a strict empiricism, Kant claims, aside from presupposing what it sets out to disprove, restricts us from making judgments about our experience, while a strict rationalism produces antinomies such as it being possible to prove both that the world had a beginning in time and is limited in space and that the world had no beginning and has no limits. As both notions are absurd, it would seem that neither reason alone nor sensations alone can render knowledge.

Kant began by stating that the normal division of knowledge into a priori and a posteriori was insufficient:

[The] old division between a priori truths and a posteriori truths employed by both camps [rationalism and empiricism] was insufficient to describe the sort of metaphysical claims that were under dispute. An analysis of knowledge also requires a distinction between synthetic and analytic truths. In an analytic claim, the predicate is contained within the subject. In the claim, “Every body occupies space,” the property of occupying space is revealed in an analysis of what it means to be a body. The subject of a synthetic claim, however, does not contain the predicate. In the phrase, “This tree is 120 feet tall,” the concepts are synthesized or brought together to form a new claim that is not contained in any of the individual concepts. The Empiricists had not been able to prove synthetic a priori claims like “Every event must have a cause, because they had conflated “synthetic” and “a posteriori” as well as “analytic” and “a priori.” Then they had assumed that the two resulting categories were exhaustive. A synthetic a priori claim, Kant argues, is one that must be true without appealing to experience, yet the predicate is not logically contained within the subject, so it is no surprise that the Empiricists failed to produce the sought after justification. The Rationalists had similarly conflated the four terms and mistakenly proceeded as if claims like, “The self is a simple substance,” could be proven analytically and a priori.

Synthetic a priori claims, Kant argues, demand an entirely different kind of proof than those required for analytic, a priori claims or synthetic, a posteriori claims. Indications for how to proceed, Kant says, can be found in the examples of synthetic a priori claims in natural science and mathematics, specifically geometry. Claims like Newton’s, “the quantity of matter is always preserved,” and the geometer’s claim, “the angles of a triangle always add up to 180 degrees” are known a priori, but they cannot be known merely from an analysis of the concepts of matter or triangle. We must “go outside and beyond the concept… joining to it a priori in thought something which I have not thought in it.” … A synthetic a priori claim constructs upon and adds to what is contained analytically in a concept without appealing to experience. So if we are to solve the problems generated by Empiricism and Rationalism, the central question of metaphysics in the Critique of Pure Reason reduces to “How are synthetic a priori judgments possible?” … If we can answer that question, then we can determine the possibility, legitimacy, and range of all metaphysical claims. (McCormick)

Kant proposed an extraordinary idea, such that he termed it a Copernican Revolution of his own in philosophy: “He would reverse the course of his philosophical predecessors and assume that instead of the mind having to conform to what can be known, what can be known must conform to the mind” (Soccio 325). Knowledge then becomes a “kind of interaction, a two-way street between the knower (the subject) and the known (the object)” (ibid).

Kant’s answer to the question is complicated, but his conclusion is that a number of synthetic a priori claims, like those from geometry and the natural sciences, are true because of the structure of the mind that knows them. “Every event must have a cause” cannot be proven by experience, but experience is impossible without it because it describes the way the mind must necessarily order its representations. (McCormick)

Kant divides reality into two categories: phenomenal and noumenal. The phenomenal is reality as we experience it, while the noumenal is reality as things are in themselves. The only thing we can know about noumena is that it exists, at least logically:

We can experience only what our human faculty of understanding is capable of… Kant argues that although we cannot directly experience noumena, a special class of transcendental ideas bridges the gap between the phenomenal and noumenal worlds. Empirical ideas are validated by sense data (experience). Transcendental ideas are “triggered” by experience when we rely on them to impose unity on the totality of our experiences. They “unify” or “make possible” having experience in the first place. Without some sort of unifying structure, Kant argues, the mind could not ‘experience’ raw sense data. It would be meaningless, undifferentiated – unexperienced. (Soccio 327)

These transcendental ideas, almost reminiscent of the Greek logos, can be said to be structures in the mind that interpret phenomena. It is this structuring in the mind that makes any experience possible. Kant developed a table of categories that is comprised of these ideas or structures. “Kant identified three transcendental ideas: self, cosmos (totality), and God… Kant goes on to say that we must act as if self, cosmos, and God refer to existing things but that, as in the case of all noumena, there is no way empirically to verify that they do. They refer to universal ideas that regulate human understanding” (Soccio 328). These ideas or structures make up the faculties of synthesis and understanding in the mind:

We must assume the ideas of God, freedom, and immortality, Kant says, not as objects of knowledge, but as practical necessities for the employment of reason in the realm where we can have knowledge. By denying the possibility of knowledge of these ideas, yet arguing for their role in the system of reason, Kant had to, “annul knowledge in order to make room for faith.” (McCormick)

Kant holds that the very intelligibility of the universe necessarily implies certain ideas, including God, but that the nature of human reason renders direct (noumenal) knowledge of the ontological status of such a transcendental (noumenal) being utterly impossible. In saying this, “Kant means that God is not the kind of thing that can be verified by an appeal to experience… Kant, however, claims that it is not possible to dismiss the idea of God…” (Soccio328). However, “a consciousness that apprehends objects directly, as they are in themselves and not by means of space and time, is possible – God, Kant says, has a purely intuitive consciousness – but our apprehension of objects is always mediated by the conditions of sensibility” (McCormick).

The metaphysical implications of Kant’s transcendental idealism are staggering. His philosophy is to be differentiated from the idealism of, say, Berkeley because Kant is an empirical realist. However, he says that we can only know things as they appear to us. His revolution ratified the sense of self and an external reality, and therefore the natural sciences, from Hume’s radical skepticism, pronounced the subjectivity of truth (which was later expounded on by the existentialists), and threw most metaphysics and speculative theology out the window. There could be an infinite amount of things out there that are real, but we as human beings cannot say anything about them. We cannot possibly comprehend them, unless we are afforded some new type of sense. It would be like trying to teach a man blind from birth the concept of color; like a sphere trying to describe the concept of three dimensions to a circle. Even then, we could still only know some new phenomena, but not the noumena directly. It seems to follow that the only way for human beings to understand anything about a metaphysical reality outside of the five senses must be in the form of analogy from a divine or supernatural source. Even then we cannot properly understand the details of any different metaphysical reality. We can only be certain that a reality outside of what we experience does indeed exist. This would seem, then, to lead toward a type of theological agnosticism. Moreover, it appears that Plato’s cave allegory fits quite nicely with Kant’s philosophy. Any man that has indeed seen beyond what normal humans sense would have trouble explaining it to others.

Kant also lays out a remarkable moral philosophy that is described as a sense of duty found within all rational creatures, which posits the reality of free will and moral responsibility: “Kant asserts that it is possible to be both determined, or unfree (in the phenomenal world), and free (in the noumenal world)” (Soccio 330).

While it is interesting to speculate, it may not be possible until bodily death to say anything absolute about the nature of the human soul or what happens to it thereof. Perhaps we shall never know. Where any of this gets us in life I have failed to ascertain. Perhaps the ancient Eastern sages were wise in not wasting time developing elaborate epistemological systems. Any system that attempts to explain the universe is going to be inadequate and insufficient. Perhaps we should stop all of this nonsensical reasoning and begin to live life instead of attempting to make sense of it.

It is easier to indulge in abstract thought than it is to exist.

– Kierkegaard

You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.

– Albert Camus


“Compatibilism.” Wikipedia. 26 April 2006.

Descartes, René. “Meditations on First Philosophy.” The Philosophy Source. Version 3.0. CD-ROM. Belmont: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, 2004.

Gogan, Aisling. “God in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason.” Memorial University of Newfoundland. 26 April 2006.

McCormick, Matt. “Immanuel Kant – Metaphysics.” The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.Ed. James Fieser. 2006. 26 April 2006.

O’Connor, Timothy. “Free Will.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Ed. Edward N. Zalta. 2005. 26 April 2006.

“Philosophy of Mind.” Wikipedia. 26 April 2006.

Pratt, David. “Consciousness, Causality, and Quantum Physics.” Exploring Theosophy.1997. 26 April 2006.

Robinson, Howard. “Dualism.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Ed. Edward N. Zalta. 2003. 26 April 2006.

Soccio, Douglas. Archetypes of Wisdom: An Introduction to Philosophy. Belmont: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, 2004.

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