The demise of modern morality

The most influential moral philosophies to emerge in modern times are Kant’s deontological ethics and consequentialism. Both moral philosophies have been greatly influential not only in the academy but in society at large. But what are they and how well do they work?


This is probably the most popular way of looking at morality in Western society. But although it has a surface plausibility to it, a consequences-only view of morality quickly leads to absurdities.

Consider the following variant on the trolley problem: a child is tied to the railway tracks. On a branch line is an expensive Ferrari. Should I pull the lever, diverting the train onto the branch line, thus saving the child? No doubt most of us would. But hang on a minute: if we refuse to pull the lever and let the child die, we could sell the Ferrari and save the lives of many children in Africa. So according to consequentialism, that’s what we should do.

Or how about this: at a hospital are three patients. One needs a heart transplant, one a lung transplant and one a liver transplant. All are life and death situations. A healthy young woman comes in for a checkup. Should we kill this woman and save the lives of the three? According to consequentialism, absolutely we should.

Let’s leave aside the contrived thought experiments for a moment, for this is not the only problem with consequentialism. For a decision of any complexity, the consequences will be difficult if not impossible to predict, thus rendering consequentialism useless in practice; arguably this is consequentialism’s biggest problem.

In my view, consequentialism is by far the worst basis for morality of the major options available. Unfortunately, it is the one most influential in wider Western society.

Kant’s Deolontological Ethics

According to Kant, the only intrinsically good thing is a good will. Other things such as money and intelligence can be used for evil and therefore are only good when used with a good will. Consequences are explicitly denied here: if you save someone’s life because you want money or fame, that is not a moral action because of your bad motive. A good will acts only out of moral duty and not out of any other motive.

To act morally is to act freely. If we act according to our animal instincts is to be a slave to those instincts; to act rationally and thus morally is to be free, even though we have a duty to act morally. So paradoxically, being free and having moral duties go together.

Kant’s morality is a law-based morality, but law requires authority. Who or what is the authority? According to Kant, each individual is autonomous and therefore a self-legislator.

But how to make moral decisions? According to the Categorical Imperative: to act only according to maxims by which you could rationally will a universal law.

Example: Promise keeping. Should I break a promise? The maxim I am following is “I should break promises if it benefits me”. But if this became a universal law, no one would be able to trust promises at all. Contracts would be impossible. No one would be able to trust anyone else, and since society needs people to work together, after a time the system would collapse. We would all live in ruins, and carry clubs to fend off bears. Therefore I have a duty to keep my promises.

The demise of modern moral philosophy

Kant’s position does have its strengths, but it has been the target of a number of criticisms. Elizabeth Anscombe called the “self-legislator” idea “absurd on its face” – a legislator without authority makes no sense, and since no law-based system of morality can survive the death of its legislator, Kant’s system crumbles.

In 1958, Elizabeth Anscombe published the essay “Modern Moral Philosophy” which demolished both consequentialism and Kantian ethics. After this Alisdair Macintyre’s “After Virtue” precipitated a revival within academia of Aristotelian virtue ethics.

According to Macintyre, there are only two ways to ground morality. One of these is an Aristotelian conception of “the good”. The other is divine law. Since modern moral thinking has rejected both of these, it floats in midair, being not based on anything else. Therefore thinking about morality has degenerated into a shallow emotionalism; something is wrong if it feels wrong. Moral discourse has thus become shrill and incoherent.

Free Will (or: Are You A Meat Robot?)

Free will has been confidently declared an illusion by some; a relic from a dusty age of lord and serf, monk and priest. But is this really so? Do we have free will and does it matter?

It would seem we don’t have free will, given the predictable nature of the world around us. Pick up a ball and set it on top of a slope. The ball rolls down. Put it back on top. Down it goes again. Drop a cat off the Eiffel Tower. It lands on its feet. Etc.

If the physical world is so set in its ways, why not us? Aren’t our choices an illusion? Case closed?

Let’s look at what no free will would mean.

Morality: If no free will, no morality, as we are not truly responsible for choices we aren’t making. Seems obvious. Let’s move on.

Daily Life: That annoying punk that bumped into you while crossing the street had no choice. The kind man who held open the door for you is a meat robot. You are at an ice-cream stand with no control over what flavour you will buy. You feel like you have a choice – but you don’t. It’s like God has your mind in a vice, as you point at the vanilla or the caramel.

If what you are doing right now is inevitable, how long ago did it become inevitable? An hour ago? At the Big Bang?

While there are any number of self-declared free will sceptics, all of them act as though their own choices matter. Like meat robots agonising over their algorithms. There are no true free will sceptics.

Rationality: If we never truly make choices, we never choose to believe anything, for good reasons or bad. We never choose to follow the evidence. We never choose to reach a conclusion; we are just following a script. Our lives are like a movie being played back; we no more make intelligent decisions than the frames of a movie make “decisions” for the actors. If no free will, no rationality and no intelligence – the scientist is no more rational than the sea slug or the tree stump. Thus, to claim that science says we have no free will is to cut the legs from under science itself, and all human knowledge with it.

I don’t think free will can be denied; indeed, it would be a catastrophe if we had to deny it. No free will? No human agency; all human experience would be nonsense. No free will has such far-reaching consequences, it is like arguing that everything is illusory and The Matrix is real. Worse, there is no red pill. 

Surely we must have free will in some sense, even if we can’t understand it. 

But what about the science experiments that show we don’t have free will? Most famously, the Libet experiments found activity in the brain before the choice was registered in the consciousness. But the decisions made in those experiments were extremely simple reflex actions and what (if anything) they say about free will is heavily disputed. Crucially, it was found that there was still an opportunity to veto the decision after the conscious awareness of it. Libet himself didn’t think his experiments undermined free will.

Some appeal to quantum physics as a way out. Quantum physics is famously not deterministic, but it is hard to see how random choices would be any more free than deterministic ones.

Some would say that questions of our notions of will and human agency are just different types of questions to the mathematical models found in science. Our notions of voluntary and involuntary and willpower are not scientific concepts, so it makes no sense to treat them as though they were; they are simply ways to talk about how we act. While there is much truth to this, many would consider it an evasion rather than an answer.

Or this: free will should be understood as a capacity with limitations that has nothing to do with determinism, just like our other capacities. You wouldn’t ask if our arms can “really” throw if determinism is true. 

We must consider what the will actually is. When you decide something, what is it that decides? Is the will a body part? When you kick, is it your foot kicking or do you kick using your foot? In the same way, when you choose to do something it is you choosing to do it rather than your brain choosing. This might seem pedantic, but the point is that you as a person are not reducible to your body parts. While you hopefully do use your brain to make decisions, you are more than just the sum of your parts. 

How to make sense of you (as a whole) deciding and not one body part or another? One possibility: by rethinking causation along Aristotelian lines. 

What would this entail? Recall that for Aristotle, as well as efficient causation (what most think of as “causation”), there were three other types of causation. One of these is formal causation, which describes the way something behaves because of what it is. You could think of this as a type of top-down causation.

Now, in doing this we place “you” as a whole at the top of the causal chain of your actions. So the will reigns supreme. But is the will here free, in any sense? Will top-down causation in a wholly physical entity will be just as predetermined as any other model of causation? If so, to make sense of free will, perhaps we should adjust not only our model of causation, but also our metaphysics.

Again, Aristotle comes to the rescue here. Aristotle had a radically different philosophy of nature from us moderns – everything you see around you is not just matter, but matter organised according to a form, which can be considered as a blueprint of sorts and is explanatorily prior to matter. According to Aristotle, the will and intellect of a human being reside in its form, rather than in matter, and thus the problem of determinism is avoided – giving us a free will worth having.

In conclusion, we can be confident that we truly do have free will, but to understand how we must revisit our modern Western assumptions about the mind and perhaps about reality itself.

Should we doubt our instincts?

All testing, all confirmation and disconfirmation of a hypothesis takes place already within a system.

When should we doubt something?

According to Wittgenstein in “On Certainty”, at some point doubt has to stop. To doubt a claim, we need a background context in which to ground it. This context must provide an understanding of the claim being doubted, a clear fallback position if the doubt succeeds and some way of making the decision.

An example: You believe that Saturn has 62 moons, but your friend says 61. The alternatives are clear. The nature of the dilemma is understood. You can make the decision on whether to doubt.

But what if your friend says Saturn has no moons because moons don’t exist? You need more information. What is the context? Why would anyone claim that moons don’t exist? Unless some shared background can be provided, the claim cannot be a reasonable basis of doubt.

With this in mind I will ask: should we doubt the instincts that evolution has given us? These instincts are like factory settings; we believe them by default solely because we are human, unless something convinces us otherwise. What would it mean to doubt these instincts?

The following is a short, non-exhaustive list:

The world is real. You hold an apple in your hand and eat it. Both your hand and the apple are real. Could you doubt this? Some have argued that the world is a simulation. Others hold that the material world is an illusion. But how do you cash that cheque? Those who believe it walk and run and eat their lunch just like everyone else. Since this is not grounded in anything else and there is no alternative, we have no basis to doubt this.

The human mind is adequate. On this is built all mathematics, philosophy, science. But can we know the human mind is adequate? If goldfish did science it would be limited and wrong, but they would never know it. Why? Because they are goldfish. What would squirrel science be like? Horrible. Dog science? Just no. Would you consult a Chimp Socrates? Of course not. But we are animals too. With this dim view of all other animals, why do we trust ourselves? We pay lip service to the idea that we are animals, but we act as though we are gods. Meat gods. Our level of self-confidence is absurd.

We could even make this argument:

  1. Of the 5 million animal species that exist, every one that has been observed is stupid.
  2. But we are animals!
  3. Almost certainly, we too are stupid.

But what is the fallback position? If we doubted that the human mind can think properly – what then? We cannot imagine an alternative, therefore we have no basis to doubt this.

Free will. Do my choices matter? Hmm. Is it not hubris to assume that animals like us can make choices and that these choices matter? Do you think chickens and sea snakes have free will? If “no”, extrapolate to yourself; you’re an animal too. Yet those who deny free will agonise over their choices just like the rest of us. Therefore free will should not be doubted, assuming we have a choice in the matter.

God. This is an interesting one. Do you understand what it would mean for there to be an everlasting, all-powerful, all-knowing being that controls everything and yet is not visible to our senses? That is so near, and yet so far beyond anything we have ever seen or could see? Of course you don’t. How could you? But how can you doubt something you don’t understand in the first place? Do you also doubt the finer points of constitutional law? This instinct is so extravagant it is not possible to get any grounding for it, whether to doubt, to confirm or to deny.

Objective morality. If something is wrong it’s wrong, right? (Wrong?)  The curious thing: even a murderer will not deny that murder is wrong while murdering. Rather, he will say that what he is doing is not really murder, or that it is self-defense, etc. If you found out that in New Zealand they have “murder parties” where people kill babies and play Scrabble, on what basis is that wrong? On a Golden Right And Wrong Book? On your instinct, that isn’t grounded in anything else and therefore is not doubtable.

What to say about these instincts? A few things.

They are all base-level. The reason they cannot be doubted is that they are not grounded in anything else.

Our instincts are vague. Being instinctual, they do not come with precise definitions. There is a lot of room to move within them. “God” in the above list could be rephrased as “God and/or gods and/or a spirit world”, for example. Free will, morality, a world outside the mind, the adequacy of the mind – all of these can be understood in a variety of ways.

Our instincts are extravagant. Arguably, only the first one – the reality of the physical world – makes a minimal claim. The other four discussed make very large claims.

The vagueness, the inability to find a ground on which to stand in order to doubt or confirm or deny – this makes arguments for or against our instincts futile; it is why debates on these topics are so unsatisfying, why they feel like trying to nail jelly to the wall.

Refuting extreme scepticism

None of our instincts can be verified. All human knowledge is thus based on unverifiable instinct.

But isn’t “based on unverifiable instinct” like saying “based on nothing”? Is all human knowledge just fantasy? 

Indeed, “based on unverifiable instinct” if anything understates the case. Under normal circumstances, a claim that is ungrounded, vague, and unable to be confirmed or denied is considered terrible and tossed out without a second thought. Consider this claim: In a faraway galaxy, parts of a blue cube are happy. That is what a vague, ungrounded, unverifiable claim looks like.

Yet, to say that all human knowledge is based on instinct is to say it’s based on claims like that. It’s hard to imagine a worse basis on which to ground knowledge.

Everyone should gaze into this abyss at least once. Everyone should stare into the void with horror.

Is there a way out? A bridge with which to span the abyss? A way to extract something from the rubble?

Our instincts evolved because they are useful, not because they are true. The exact pathways of how and why are unknown to us.

Since our instincts are all unverifiable, unfalsifiable and ungrounded in anything else, and since they all evolved and thus have the same origin, we have no basis for privileging one over another.

It makes no sense to use one unverifiable instinct to reject another as being unverifiable. If you do, you call all the instincts into question. The abyss beckons.

If you pick and choose, you must place the instincts within a context first; a context from which to make that decision. If the above is correct this cannot be done.

There are only two consistent options available to us: reject all our instincts and all human knowledge, or assume all of them.

Assuming all of them is thus the only option we have for grounding human knowledge. To avoid extreme scepticism, we must do this – despite the absurdities it creates, despite the riddles within riddles.

The advantage? Even though we can only guess as to the truth of our instincts, we know that they are useful – that’s why we have them. Therefore, a system of thought that embraces all of them embraces human flourishing. 

Further reading

Moore’s Proof at the Electric Agora. Discusses Wittgenstein’s “On Certainty”.

Being pedantic about faith

Is it possible to verify that Christianity is true using philosophy?

Aquinas thought that we could prove using philosophy that God exists, that God has all the “omni” attributes normally associated with Him, that God is the first cause of everything, that God keeps everything in existence from moment to moment, that God is conscious and intelligent and designed the world around us, that the human race exists in order to know God and so on. All that using human reason rather than just faith.

However, Aquinas did not think it possible to prove the Christian faith using philosophy. So Christian teaching about the nature of God, about Jesus and the trinity and so on cannot be verified by philosophy.

Is it possible to verify that Christianity is true using evidence?

If by “evidence” we mean scientific evidence, the answer is clearly no, but there are other kinds of evidence.

Is there any other kind of evidence that could satisfy a sceptic? The question calls to mind tedious online arguments we have all witnessed between Christians and atheists. You felt something? Feelings aren’t evidence. You had a dream? Power of suggestion. You had a vision? A hallucination. Your prayer was answered? A coincidence. You were healed? Placebo effect. Your cancer was healed? Cancer goes into remission by itself all the time. You had shrapnel embedded in your knee and it disappeared for no discernible reason, and you have medical documentation for before and after, and the doctor had no idea how it happened? You’re crazy!

There’s a lot that could be said and it’s not as though the sceptics don’t make some good points. Nevertheless I will ask what I believe to be a more interesting and important question: Can a religious claim be empirically verified in principle?

Consider the following scenario: you have been transported back in time and find yourself standing in Jesus’ tomb. Assume you know 100% that this is really happening and that the dead body in front of you is really Jesus. You check and he is, with 100% certainty, dead. Then to your astonishment, he rises from the dead while you are watching. Do you now know with certainty that Christianity is true?

No, you don’t. Why? Because while you know that Jesus just rose from the dead, you don’t know what to do about that. (The early Christians weren’t sure what to do about it either.)

Therefore empirical verification of any religious claim is not possible. There will always be a leap of faith required.

Where’s the evidence?

Evidence. Evidence. Where is the evidence? Show me the evidence or I won’t believe. Such is a typical response of the modern atheist when asked why they don’t believe in God.

By “evidence” they mean empirical evidence; the kind of evidence used by science. Now, empiricism as a starting point to validate truth claims has a long and distinguished history. So how far can empirical evidence get us? Let’s find out what it can’t get us.

The following is a short, non exhaustive list of stuff almost everyone believes in but for which there is no empirical evidence:

Objective reality. When you sit on a chair, you don’t know empirically that the chair exists; all you know is that your mind is giving you the experience of sitting on a chair. To know that the chair has mind-independent reality, you need to go outside your mind to check. Good luck with that.

Causation. Have you ever seen a cause? No. You see things happen after other things, then your mind infers that causation is there. So causation could be illusory, or you might not understand it. Perhaps no one does.

Other minds. You know that you have an inner consciousness. You don’t know that anyone else does. Have you ever seen anyone else’s consciousness? Is it valid to extrapolate from yourself to everyone else in this way? After all, you are a small sample size.

Morality. To say that anything is right or wrong presupposes that there is an objective standard that whoever you are criticising should adhere to. Where is this standard? Can you prove empirically what standard we should use?

Human logic. If the mind evolved, how do you know that this has progressed long enough to produce anything useful? It might take another million years for all you know. Future humanity might consider our science and mathematics a laughing stock.

Abstractions. Abstractions such as “truth”, “knowledge”, “circle”, “hypothesis” and so on do not exist empirically, so how do you know it makes sense to use them? You don’t.

Mathematics. Prove empirically that 2-5=-3. Should be easy. Start with 2 apples, take away 5, for a total of -3 apples. Now pick up one of your -3 apples and eat it. You have successfully proven mathematics empirically. Congratulations.

The past. Your memory is reliable, or is it? Can you go back to check?

History. Was Julius Caesar assassinated? Can you prove it empirically, rather than from dusty old books?

Love. “I love you!” Really? Show me the evidence.

Any empirical fact you can think of will necessarily be based on assumptions such as the above that can’t themselves be proven empirically. For example, to say “I just saw a cat outside my window” assumes a world outside your mind, that you weren’t hallucinating or dreaming, an ability to recognise cats, an ability to construct sentences correctly, the reliability of your memory etc.

Any scientific idea will add on more assumptions, as it must assume that the world is comprehensible both in itself and to us, that scientific concepts such as “hypothesis” and “falsification” make sense, that causation is real and so on. The deeper the level of abstraction, the more ideas must be assumed.

Let’s look at causation for a moment. Science assumes that causation is real but doesn’t tell us how. If for example matter is made of ideas in the mind of God (I am not making this up), then what we think of as physical causation is actually connections between ideas in God’s mind, and all science is theology – and the evidence can’t tell us otherwise. Another example: what if our minds told us that causation works backwards? If they did, no doubt our science would include not evolution, but devolution; not natural selection, but natural unselection – and again, the evidence wouldn’t tell us otherwise.

It follows that there is no such thing as a purely empirical fact. To put it another way, any empirical fact is a non-empirical sundae with an empirical cherry on top. If the non-empirical sundae is wrong, the empirical cherry won’t make it right. Likewise, if the non-empirical sundae is correct, it will still be correct without the empirical cherry.

Looking at examples of empirical evidence only reinforces this point. When I think of empirical evidence, I think of (say) finding fossils in the ground. But it gets a lot more esoteric than that. Consider the following from this paper about the Higgs boson:

Correspondingly, the signal strength relative to the expectation for the standard model Higgs boson is found to be 0.78 ± 0.27 at the Higgs boson mass of 125 GeV. Earlier, the CDF and D0 experiments at the Tevatron reported, for mH = 125 GeV, an observed (expected) 95% CL upper limit of 7.0 (5.7) times the standard model expectation.

Such statistical methods stretch the definition of “empirical” to breaking point.

This means there can be no hard boundary between science and other types of knowledge. Therefore if the success of science gives you confidence in science (and why not), it should also give you confidence in the non-empirical aspects of human thought.

Fine. Now what?

Where to proceed from here?

No one is an acausationist who won’t believe in causation until someone shows them evidence for it, nor does anyone argue for it; it’s just assumed. If the human instincts that evolution has given us about causation, time and space, other minds, objective reality, abstract thought etc should be accepted without argument or evidence, and evolution has given us an instinct to believe in God, you are also fully justified in believing in God without argument or evidence.

What you cannot do is reject anything solely because you believe it has no empirical evidence. If you do, you must also reject the entire above list – objective reality, causation, other minds, the validity of human logic, morality, abstract thought, history, mathematics. 

Clearly that cannot be done. A consistent empiricism is therefore a complete non-starter. The challenge, then, is to find a more balanced approach that takes into account human instinct and logic rather than just empirical evidence.

Introducing Approximatism

I don’t have all the answers, but my own take is this: all the basic human instincts about reality are approximately true. Why all?

Since all human knowledge is ultimately based on unprovable instincts, it makes no sense to use half those instincts to attack the other half as unprovable. Secondly, whatever instincts we have ultimately came from the same source, so there is no basis for privileging one over another. There are only two consistent positions available to us: we assume they are all true and proceed on that basis, or they are all false and all human knowledge is fiction.

So if we are to avoid a scepticism of everything, the role of logic and evidence is to show us exactly how our instincts are true rather than trying to overturn them.

The problem of suffering and evil

It is commonly argued that there cannot be an all-knowing, all-powerful, good God because there is so much evil and suffering in the world. Is this true? If God exists, how are we to understand suffering and evil?

I’ve always held that problem of evil is not something you can consider while deciding if God exists. A good God could have any number of reasons for allowing evil, depending on what He is like. Therefore there is no contradiction in a benevolent God allowing evil, but you can’t address the question if you don’t even know if He exists or not.

So for this post, I will assume that Aquinas’ arguments for God’s existence are true and take it from there. (Read more about those at Aquinas Explainer: The First Way and The Fifth Way.) This means that God is a conscious, immaterial mind that holds everything in existence and enables everything that happens from moment to moment as a First Cause.

Aquinas holds that evil is a privation – it does not exist on its own, but is parasitic on the good and acts by attacking or distorting the good. Since God was before everything else, He must have been originally good and the only way He could be evil is by attacking or distorting Himself, which is impossible. Therefore God cannot be evil.

If God as First Cause is enabling all our choices, what does that mean? Since God is keeping everything in existence and being the First Cause of everything from moment to moment, He is in some sense enabling every good thing that ever happens – every opening flower, every baby being born, every sublime piece of music or art, you name it. But in the same way, He is in some sense enabling every evil thing that ever happens – every murder, every rape, every genocide.

That’s disturbing, but if God cannot possibly be evil he presumably doesn’t like evil. So why is he constantly enabling every evil thing that ever happens? That’s the big question here.

Evil and choice

Whatever else you might say about it, evil is a byproduct of choice. Choice is the world’s most multifaceted tool. You can choose to cook lasagne, study mathematics, start a hairdressing apprenticeship, buy and sell, go to work, plan finances, take the day off work, learn painting, read a book, attend a Mozart concert, give blood, play cricket, get married, have children, invent, build, rest and so on. We choose all these things because they seem good to us – we need them or they bring joy to our lives.

So if you choose to torture someone, and liaise with other torturers to refine your torture techniques and make them more agonising, thus increasing your pleasure from hearing your victim’s screams, is that not an example of human creativity and ingenuity, just like other choices? Also, isn’t the underlying motive the same as other choices – in this case, to gain pleasure?

If evil is not a thing in itself but a distortion of the good, and is a byproduct of the human capacity to make choices, how is God to get rid of it?

A knife can stab or it can chop carrots. If you made knives safe, they would no longer be knives.

The easiest way for God to annihilate evil would be to annihilate the human race.


Cancer. Rocks falling on people’s heads. Drowning in a tsunami. The list of sufferings is endless.

Some group suffering together with the problem of evil, but this doesn’t make sense to me. A tsunami, a rockfall or cancer, bad as they can be, have no agency. They are bad for us but how can something with no will of its own be evil?

Should He exist, can we critique God based on suffering? To answer this question, we must ask another – what are we expecting God to do? What should He have done otherwise?

To my mind, it is hard even to imagine a material world without suffering. For example: a rock falling on someone’s head, killing them. Why do such things happen? It is because matter has weight and mass, and this because of gravity. Objects falling on smaller, less dense objects damage them for this reason.

So to ask that such sufferings not happen, what we are really asking is that gravity be switched off. Or that gravity exist but not when we are around. Or for gravity to exist but not when I say otherwise, thank you very much. (Are we entitled to this? Why?)

The same thing applies to other sources of suffering. To have a physical body is to be vulnerable to damage by other physical things, so that a material world without suffering is inconceivable. So ultimately the question becomes: should God have created the material world in the first place? Is it worth it?

If God exists, it seems He decided it was worth it.

Is there an ultimate meaning to suffering and evil?

I assumed at the start of this post that God is as described by Aquinas, the First Cause of everything that happens, who keeps everything in existence from moment to moment; who designed the natural world and is responsible for the order we see in it; who is good; who is in everything that takes place; who is constantly making decisions about what to let happen and what to deny; who is rational and does this according to His own plan; who created the human race to know Him.

If this is correct, it follows that all aspects of the world we see around us have meaning; that all aspects of human existence are meaningful. Even the most horrific sufferings that we experience because of evil and the predations of nature ultimately have a reason. So cancer and earthquakes, terror famines and the Holocaust all have meaning – even when this is incomprehensible to us.

This is a difficult thing to accept; no doubt many atheists would see this as demonstrating the absurdity of theism. Some sufferings kill or drive insane their victims. It just seems over the top. What value could there be in such things?

I read an extraordinary book recently: “Man’s Search For Meaning” by Viktor Frankl. Frankl was a Holocaust survivor and a psychiatrist, who observed what he saw in Hitler’s camps and applied it to the human experience more generally. He invented “logotherapy”, or meaning-based therapy. I hope to write a post on it, but meanwhile here are a couple of choice quotes from his book:

We who lived, in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. […] It is this spiritual freedom — which cannot be taken away — that makes life meaningful and purposeful.


We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life—daily and hourly. […]

Once the meaning of suffering had been revealed to us, we refused to minimize or alleviate the camp’s tortures by ignoring them or harboring false illusions and entertaining artificial optimism. Suffering had become a task on which we did not want to turn our backs.

Gulag survivor Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn had similar insights.

Our culture treats pain and suffering as a dead loss, with no meaning in it. Why is this? To my mind, it is because we see no meaning in life generally. It makes no sense to say that life has meaning, but only when it is pleasant.

If belief in God gives us confidence that life has meaning in itself, it should also give us confidence that all aspects of life have meaning – including suffering and death.

Further reading

Man’s Search For Meaning – Full text available at

The Brothers Karamazov – Dostoevsky provided one of the most evocative portrayals of the problem of evil ever set to print.

Unbroken and the problem of evil – A discussion of the problem of evil from a Christian perspective, by philosopher Edward Feser.

Science, suicide and the catastrophic spider

To understand the past is to understand the present. So for this post, let’s take a brief look at the history of Western thought, starting with Descartes, who rebooted philosophy 400 years ago, replacing Aristotle.

Descartes’ main contribution was this: science defines the material world. (This is common sense nowadays, but it originated with Descartes.) In his view, the natural world is like an enormous machine; a “clockwork universe”. Descartes also held that the human mind, including consciousness, was immaterial and separate to the body.

Descartes did not provide any account of how human knowledge was possible; he simply assumed that it was. This would have consequences, as we shall see.

Descartes’ immediate successors can be grouped into two categories; the rationalists and the empiricists.

The Rationalists

Spinoza was a determinist. He held that free will was impossible and that God and Nature are names for the same underlying reality – “God” here meaning the deterministic system of which everything is a part. He said that good and evil are relative rather than absolutes. He opposed Cartesian dualism, stating that if mind and body were separate, it was hard to see how they could interact – the interaction problem.

After Spinoza came Leibniz, who invented calculus independently of Newton. He was an optimist. He held that this is the best possible universe God could have created. He invented parallelism – preestablished divine harmony between matter and mind – to solve the interaction problem.

Malebranche attempted to solve the interaction problem by means of occasionalism – the belief that mind cannot act on body or body on mind, but that God mediated between both.

The Empiricists

Descartes’ method had been one of doubt; doubt as much as possible, before rebuilding. The Empiricists followed his lead, by playing Let’s See Who Can Doubt The Most Stuff.

Locke said that all of our ideas are derived from the senses, so that our knowledge is limited; we can’t know the primary qualities of things, but only their secondary qualities (such as colour or taste).

According to Berkeley, objective reality cannot be empirically verified and therefore doesn’t exist. Rather, to exist is to be perceived subjectively by a mind. The world only exists because God is perceiving it.

Hume was the logical endpoint of empiricism and scepticism. He is much loved by Internet atheists for demolishing religion, but he didn’t stop there. Hume demolished science! Hume demolished causation! Hume demolished time and space! Hume demolished philosophy! Hume demolished Hume! Hume’s method for each of these was the same; all knowledge comes via the senses, but the senses tell us about rocks, trees and cats, not about time, space, causation, scientific logic, religion or philosophy. Hume either swept away the cobwebs of superstition or demonstrated the absurdity of any consistent scepticism, depending on who you talk to. Hume left philosophy in crisis. He appalled and perplexed everyone. Everything was demolished. Who could save philosophy now?

The catastrophic spider

Enter Kant. He answered Hume with a complex account of how human knowledge was possible. According to Kant, we don’t see the world-in-itself but rather the world as it is structured by the mind, the world-to-us. Since we can never get outside our minds, the world-in-itself is forever closed to us, and it is unknown if and to what extent the world-to-us is accurate. We can do science, but all we are studying is the world-to-us.

We can never answer the Big Questions about God or metaphysics, because they are part of the world-in-itself but not the world-to-us. On this basis, Kant dismissed all proofs of God’s existence as invalid. (Lest you get the wrong idea, Kant was a devout Catholic.)

Kant’s influence was huge; second only to Descartes. But ultimately it was his formulation of the problem of human knowledge, rather than his solutions, that would be remembered. To get an idea of his legacy, it is said we live in a “post-Kantian wasteland”. Nietzsche called Kant a “catastrophic spider”. Kant’s successors can be (roughly) grouped three ways; the idealists, the existentialists and ultimately the materialists.


If you can explain all human knowledge in terms of the world-to-us, what need is there for a world-in-itself? Perhaps mind-reality is the only reality.

According to Hegel, history is Mind seeking to understand itself. The good news? Mind would one day understand everything. How inspirational is that? I’m inspired. Who else was inspired by Hegel? Karl Marx. Marx invented Communism. Communists killed 100 million people. The lesson here? Don’t do philosophy; it’s too dangerous.

Ultimately an increasingly secular West would reject Hegel as being too mystical.

Absurdity and despair

Next, the existentialists. Since the world-in-itself could not be known, the quest for knowledge is futile. Philosophy was spooked from asking big questions and instead slid into despair.

Schopenhauer held that human desire is illogical and directionless. Birth only brings into existence a new occasion for suffering and death. What is real is the Cosmic Will but the Cosmic Will is evil.

Nietzsche coined the phrase “God is dead”. According to Nietzsche, the end of Christianity will bring in a period of amorality and chaos as our morality moves away from Christian “slave morality” with its pity and compassion, until a new morality is established. (Nietzsche went insane before his death, shortly before the First World War broke out.)

The Existentialists said that human freedom leads to dread and despair. The quest for knowledge is hopeless. Life is “the nauseating quality of existence”. We are condemned to look for meaning in a universe without it. Life is absurd and the only thing to do is embrace the absurdity.

Camus said that the only philosophical question worth asking is: Should I kill myself? (His answer was “no”, but still.)

Language-games and science

Pragmatism held concepts to be useful instruments rather than anything true or false.

Wittgenstein presented language as having meaning only within a “language-game” and meaningless outside it; the point of language is not to be true or false but to be understood by other players of the language-game. Wittgenstein regarded language as a cage; its imprecision makes philosophy impossible.

Parallel to this, a movement was afoot to make philosophy more like an intellectual discipline that wasn’t chewing it off its own feet; namely, science.

This can be seen as the final response to Kant. If we can explain everything in terms of the world-to-us, then the world-to-us is the world-in-itself and that is all there is; no need for God or metaphysics. This would lead inexorably to materialism in its various guises. Materialism holds that mind is really matter, although like all modern philosophy it defines both “mind” and “matter” in Cartesian terms.

Because no one pays attention to philosophy, few are aware that materialism has run into a number of intractable problems that cannot and will not be overcome.

In my view, the failure of modern philosophy to pin down the basic nature of reality shows that it’s Cartesian foundations are faulty. Build on top of a faulty foundation and things may seem fine at first; as more storeys are added, cracks appear and the building starts to shudder. The only solution is to demolish or wait until the collapse.

It is my opinion that the Cartesian conceptions of mind and matter are both incorrect. Given that, it hardly matters which way you connect the puzzle pieces. Whether mind is really matter (materialism), matter is really mind (idealism) or mind and matter are separate (dualism) – all of these will fail if the definitions of “mind” and “matter” are wrong in the first place.


Between language-games and materialism, half of philosophy was claiming that philosophy was impossible and the other half was claiming that science would provide the answers. Not without reason, the West decided philosophy no longer merited our attention and philosophy was locked inside its ivory towers.

Once, philosophers were household names. As late as 1922, Einstein debated a philosopher on the subject of time, and the public was riveted. Imagine that happening today.

Things are different now. Science is king and philosophy is an irrelevant sideshow. But this has its consequences; Western thought has atrophied. The West scarcely knows how to ask the big questions any more, let alone answer them.