Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Ideas and Consequences Part 1 - Plato's long shadow

Edward Feser explores the philosophical underpinnings of his fellow conservatives in his TechCentralStation essay titled The Metaphysics of Conservatism. Feser's article is long by blog standards, and is followed up by a response from Max Borders, and a counter response by Feser. This multipart series of posts will explore this very important and divisive debate of the ages, without any real expectation, of course, of laying it to rest.

First off Feser recounts the historical development of Plato's Theory of Ideas and its adoption by Christianity into a philosophy that formed the underpinnings of Natural Law Theory, and the philosophical scholl known as Realism:

A brief history of Western thought

Obviously we cannot understand the metaphysics of conservatism without knowing something about metaphysics, and in particular something about the issue with which Plato, and Weaver following him, was most concerned. So let us begin by summarizing the relevant ideas. Is it possible to do so in a way that will make them comprehensible to those unfamiliar with philosophy, yet without oversimplification? The answer, of course, is no, but I will try anyway.

The first thing to say is that the label “Theory of Ideas” is misleading, because (given the way we now use the term “ideas”) it seems to imply that Plato was concerned with something that exists only in the human mind. In fact the opposite is true. Plato’s view is also sometimes called the “Theory of Forms,” and “form” rather than “idea” better conveys what he meant.

Take the example of a triangle, which has a form that distinguishes it from a square or a circle. In Plato’s usage, this “form” includes not only its shape, but all the properties that make it the thing it is: the length of its sides, its area, the fact that its angles add up to 180 degrees, and so forth. Now any particular material triangle (such as the ones drawn in geometry textbooks) is going to have certain properties that are not part of “triangularity” as such, and will also lack certain properties that are part of triangularity as such.

For example, it will have a specific color -- green, say -- and lack perfectly straight sides, even though greenness is not part of triangularity and having straight sides is part of it. So in Plato’s view, when the intellect grasps the form of triangularity, it is not grasping something material, since nothing material manifests triangularity in the strictest sense. But neither is it grasping something mental. For there are certain facts about triangles -- the Pythagorean theorem, for example -- that are entirely objective, and discovered by the human mind rather than invented by it. Moreover, these facts are necessary and unchanging rather than contingent and alterable: the Pythagorean theorem is true eternally, whether or not any human mind thinks otherwise or would like it to be otherwise. “Triangularity” is therefore something that exists apart from either mind or matter, in a third realm of its own: the realm of Forms. And the same thing is true, according to Plato, of the Forms of everything else -- squares and circles, plants and animals, human beings, beauty, truth, and goodness.

It is important to understand that talk about the Forms existing “in” a “realm,” and so forth, is purely metaphorical. Literally they don’t exist “in” anything, since “in” is a spatial term and the Forms, being immaterial, are outside time and space. For the same reason, the “realm” of Forms isn’t literally a place, since that too would imply spatial location. The concepts we apply to material things simply don’t apply to the Forms at all, and the way we learn about material things -- through the senses -- is not how we know the Forms. They are grasped through pure intellect.

Indeed, in Plato’s view the senses don’t strictly speaking give us true knowledge at all, but merely opinion, for what they reveal to us -- material objects -- are merely more or less imperfect copies of the Forms, and are continually coming to be and passing away, whereas the Forms are eternal. The Forms are what most fully and truly exist, and genuine knowledge is knowledge of them.

Aristotle took a view that was similar to Plato’s in many ways, though he thought that forms in some sense existed “in” the material world rather than in a “realm” of their own (even though they were not in his view any more than in Plato’s reducible to matter): triangularity, for example, exists “in” all particular triangles rather than as a thing in its own right. Aristotle also emphasized the idea that a substance -- a statue, a tree, a human being -- is a composite of matter and form.

On this view, known as “hylomorphism,” a tree, for example, is not merely a hunk of matter, but a hunk of matter with a particular form, the form of “treeness,” where this form is (again) not merely a physical property alongside other physical properties of the tree. And the soul, on Aristotle’s view, is simply the form of a living body. A human person, therefore, is on his view a composite of soul (or form) and body (or living matter). By virtue of their forms, things exhibit certain natural functions, ends, or purposes, and it is the fulfillment of these natural functions, ends, or purposes that defines what is good for a thing. This is as true of human beings and their various capacities as it is of anything else.

Now the philosophers of the Middle Ages inherited these concepts from the Greeks, some of them more or less following (and sometimes amending) Plato, others, particularly later in the medieval period, following (and amending) Aristotle. St. Augustine combined Plato’s view that the Forms are eternal and independent of the human mind with the intuition that it is hard to see how they could exist apart from just any mind at all, and concluded that they exist eternally in God’s mind. St. Thomas Aquinas extended Aristotle’s view in several ways, including an emphasis on the idea that the human soul, the form of the living human body, is “subsistent” in the sense that uniquely among the forms of material things, it operates in part independently of matter (in particular, its intellectual powers do) and can survive as a particular thing beyond the death of the body it is the form of.

In general, in debating the famous “problem of universals,” the medieval thinkers carried forward the debate between Plato and Aristotle over the nature of the forms. “Universals” are really just the things we’ve been calling “forms” -- triangularity, “treeness,” humanness, goodness, and so forth -- and are to be distinguished from “particulars,” i.e. specific things (like this or that individual triangle or tree) which might instantiate or exhibit the universal or form. The term “form,” though, tends to be used by those who take the view that, in their different ways, both Plato and Aristotle (and Augustine and Aquinas and many others) took: that universals are real and not reducible to either mind or matter. This is the view about universals that came to be known therefore as “classical realism,” or just “realism” full stop.

So far so good. Feser's lead in does an admirably concise job of summarizing the key points of Plato's theory and its subsequent developments. It is a philosophy that I thoroughly disagree with, but more of that later. Feser then sets up the applicability of this philosophy and the consequences of its abandonment in the Modern age:

This was by no means a mere intellectual curiosity. A great deal rode on it -- and, as we will see, still rides on it today. To take one example, the traditional understanding of the idea that there is a “natural law” that determines what is objectively right and wrong is inextricably tied to classical realism. For “human nature,” as understood by the traditional natural law theorist, is defined in terms of the form that every human being participates in simply by virtue of being a human being. And that means it is something known ultimately and most fully only through the intellect and via philosophical reasoning, not (or at least not entirely or most deeply) through the senses and empirical biology. Moreover, this nature defines certain natural ends and purposes for human beings and their capacities, the realization of which constitutes what is good for them: good objectively, simply by virtue of their participation in the form, and regardless of whether this or that particular human being realizes or (because of intellectual error, habitual vice, psychological or genetic anomaly or whatever) fails to realize it.

To take another, and related, example, a person, being on the view in question a composite of soul (or form) and body (or matter), cannot be identified with either his psychological characteristics alone or his bodily characteristics alone. Moreover, since the soul is just the form of a living human body, for a living human body to exist at all is for it to have a soul, so that there can be no such thing as a living human body -- whether that of a fetus, an infant, a normal human adult or a severely brain damaged adult -- which does not have a soul, and which does not count as a person. For while even a human being who is damaged or not fully formed might not perfectly exhibit the form of the human body (any more than a hastily drawn triangle perfectly manifests the form of triangularity), he nevertheless does exhibit it, otherwise his body wouldn’t count as a living human body at all (just as a hastily drawn triangle is still a triangle, however imperfect). One corollary of this is that every single living human body, within the womb or without, severely damaged or not, counts as the body of a person and as a being having all the rights of a person, including the right to life.

I've never understood this need to appeal to forms or ideas to justify the reality of things that we can see or feel directly. To me this is a philosophy misnamed; it should be rightly called "Idealism", as it suggests that the ideas about things are more real than the things themselves. The human mind posesses a very powerful capacity, that of abstraction. By abstraction, the mind is capable of highlighting singular characteristics of objects, and using these characteristics to classify separate objects according to types, or forms. But Platonic realism breathes life into these abstractions, to the point that they achieve object-hood all their own.

The second bolded quote above shows the semantic shenanigans by which the realist "proves" the existence, through a simple tautology, of the soul. The soul is a name given to the abstract quality that all living people posess. So by definition all living people posess a soul. By a simple substitution of term with definition, the absurdity of this tautology is revealed: "All living people posess the quality that all living people posess".

"Participating in a form" is merely fancy language for having the qualities that would put something in a category. It is sophistry. But I am getting ahead of the narrative:

Now as the Middle Ages wore on, a rival view to that of classical realism developed: the theory called “nominalism,” which held that universals do not, strictly speaking, exist at all. Only particular things -- this or that particular triangle, this or that particular tree, this or that particular human being, and so forth -- are real, and “triangularity,” “treeness,” “humanness” and the like are nothing more than names we happen to apply to groups of things. Moreover, that the things so named are grouped the way they are is merely a function of our interests and needs, and does not reflect any objective or natural order.

As the medieval world gave way to the modern one, and medieval to modern philosophy, nominalism won the day, and modern thinkers like Descartes and Locke abandoned the old conceptual apparatus of hylomorphism, with its appeal to forms and natural ends or purposes as fundamental to the understanding of things, and to the idea of the soul as the form of the living human body. “Mechanism” -- the view that physical things operate on purely mechanical principles, without natural ends or purposes and without instantiating anything like Plato’s or Aristotle’s Forms -- entailed a redefinition of the human body as nothing more than a complex machine, and “human nature” as nothing more than a specification of the principles by which the machine operates, like clockwork.

Now if a living human body does not have a form -- any more than anything else does on the modern view -- then it does not have a soul either, at least as classically defined. Descartes thus re-defined the soul as a kind of non-physical object which is only contingently or accidentally attached to its body, rather than as a form which the body necessarily has to have in order to be a living body at all. One result of this is that the soul came to seem to modern Western thinkers an ever more elusive and mysterious entity, and therefore a dispensable one. Another is that it became harder to see what made a living human body the body of a person, since there is nothing about its being alive that entails (on the modern view anyway) that it has a soul. This problem was only exacerbated by Locke’s own re-definition of a person as a stream of connected conscious experiences, rather than a union of soul (form) and body (matter).

Thus were sown the seeds -- inadvertently, to be sure -- that would eventually develop into the view that neither a fetus nor a Terri Schiavo counts as a person having a right to life. And in the other trends alluded to -- nominalism and mechanism -- we see the origins of the idea that “human nature” is either a purely human construct, or something that exists objectively only as a collection of behavioral tendencies, of no more inherent moral significance than the workings of a clock. We might, as a matter of prudence, want to keep them in mind as a possible barrier to the realization of our desires, but if we could find a way to alter them there would be no objective reason not to do so.

Now here is where the Platonic realists veer off into hysterical fearmongering so familiar to those secular "non-realists" among us who must bear the brunt of our religiously-minded Platonist friends tirades against the consequences of our soulless worldview. As I mentioned above, the "soul" is just the realist's term for defining human-ness. It adds nothing to our understanding, or our valuing of humanness to assume that the qualities that make humans humans reside in some mystical, free floatng, formless "form" rather than in our concrete existence as humans. The realist imagines that noone valued human life prior to Plato's invention of this idea of separating essence and existence into two separate but interacting objects, one material and one immaterial. Furthermore they imagine that this one idea is capable of forcing the idea holder into placing a higher value on human life than he otherwise would.

Contrary to Feser's contention that this notion flows from common sense (I'm getting ahead of the narrative again), it is the ultimate victory of intellectual hubris over organic common sense. Our species would have perished long ago had it been dependent on the development of a cerebral cortex advanced enough for abstract thought in order to properly value its own existence.

One comment about this notion that without a Soul, a person is nothing but a mere machine. This argument drives me up a wall. Does a person seem to be nothing more than a machine? Can a clock do all the things that a person can do? Do clocks fall in love? Has anyone ever fallen in love with a clock? We don't need a philosophical justification for the level of value that we ascribe to our existence. We value ourselves because we are self-valuing beings. It is inbred, it is organic. No theoretical underpinnings required.

This reminds me of a common, cliched comedy routine that has been repeated in many a movie and TV sitcom. Generically it goes something like this:

A man visiting an exotic, faraway land is invited by a local chieftain to dinner. Before him are placed several dishes of unfamiliar content. The man hesitantly begins to nibble at the fare.

American: "Hmm,... this isn't bad. As a matter of fact, this stuff is great! What do you call it?"

Chief: "We call it 'Bskhblakkxxxa'.

American: (stuffing large spoonfuls into his mouth) "Bisblaka huh? What is it made of?"

Chief: "Elephant testicles".

American: "Bleeeech!!!!!" (regurgitates his meal into the chieftains lap).

The food represents human life. We know by our experience that it is something good, something that we value highly. Yet we don't know quite what it is made of. Just like the hot-dogs and sausages we consume daily. The realist whining that if we find out that we're just machines without souls, we won't have any reason to value our lives is like the diner worrying that if he finds out what his hot-dogs really are he will decide that he really doesn't like hot-dogs after all. We don't need to know the recipe to know whether or not we like the end result.


Blogger Brit said...

Thanks Duck – excellent article.

Platonic Form-thinking is pretty powerful and instinctive for a lot of people in many areas. I came across a good example the other day on BrosJudd, in a debate I had with Peter about the definition of ‘species’. The following is a summary:

The resident Darwin-opposers on that worthy site spend quite a bit of time scoffing at science’s attempts at taxonomy – specifically, the fact that a whole load of very similar things are defined as different species, when to you and I they are all alike. I provided my own example: there are some 20,000 defined species of orchid. But of course it takes an obsessive orchid fan to tell most of them apart, and obsessive orchid fans disagree with each other about how many species there are. To you and me, there are really just orchids. Orrin has frequently made similar statements: eyebrow lice are still lice.

But the resident Darwin-opposers also scoff at darwinism on the grounds that it can’t explain speciation.

It never seems to occur to them that these are two fundamentally self-contradictory scoffs.

Orrin was too busy quote-mining the introduction to ‘What Evolution Is’ to take any notice of Ernst Mayr's first lesson for understanding evolution: Population Thinking.

In other words, stop thinking of species in terms of Platonic forms. Taxonomy is a very useful discipline for all sorts of reasons, but you shouldn’t allow it to confuse you about how evolution works.

The creatures of this world live in the form of reproductively-interactive populations of genetically unique individuals. The names of the 'species' are imposed by humans for their own purposes of classification.

In the evolutionary path to the modern horse (equus), one of the 'stages', circa 45 million years ago to 35mya, was the evolution from ‘orohippus’ to ‘epihippus’.

But what does that mean? If you're thinking in terms of Plantonic forms, there must have been a last orohippus giving birth to a first, brave new epihippus, and this 'speciation moment' must have been something earth-shattering and profound (perhaps requiring the gamma rays of God, who knows?)

But that's not how nature works. The names 'orohippus' and 'epihippus' are invented by men and they serve to help identify approximately where in history a fossil fits. They are not a Platonic type of which actual creatures are imperfect copies.

If we had all the bodies of all the populations of hippus 45mya-35mya and could lay them out in a long line by age, sure we could draw a line somewhere and say "here oro endeth and epi beginneth". But what would that exercise amount to? It would be useful for stacking the bodies on shelves, but would say nothing about the creatures. The line would be arbitrary, and there would be fierce debates about which side of the line actual individuals went.

Creationists used to make a lot of fuss about the lack of intermediary fossils between species. What didn't dawn on them was that a big reason for this so-called 'lack' was that naturalists would start with the species definitions, and then debate furiously about which category to put new fossils in, when they didn't quite fit one or t'other.

Creatures live in populations of unique individuals. Divergence happens if populations become reproductively isolated from each other - in other words, if there is no gene flow between them - and they face different selection pressures.

Humans came along afterwards to decide what ‘species’ to call them. Humans just like categorising things. The definitions are ours - nature doesn't care a damn about nice clean species divisions.

One day, Orrin might realise that his confusion stems from his inability to grasp Mayr’s first lesson. His ‘speciation’ objection to darwinism, and his cynicism about the difficulties of defining species are contradictory. The first is based on Platonic thinking, the reason for the second is that Platonic thinking about species is wrong.

But I wouldn’t count on it. If you took all of Orrin’s arguments and crossed out the ones that flat-out contradict each other, you’d probably only be left with ‘Europeans throw like girls.”

January 25, 2006 3:19 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Bad Plato. Bad, bad Plato. Duck, I warned you about idealizing those ancients. They are just as dangerous as the Christians. Do you know how many platonists are out there just itching to crash the nation's science classes? Aux Barricades.


You are completely ignoring the fact that "species" is not just a loose word that allows for artifical, convenient groupings on a timeline in science classes and museums. It is a word in the dictionary defined specifically with reference to a capacity to interbreed. If interbreeding is no longer important to darwinism and you guys have changed the lingo without telling Webster's, say so and tell us precisely what the definition now is, but don't fault us for talking your side's definitions at face value.

It is you who has misunderstood the thread you are referring to. It was about modern scientists' casual and opprtunistic playing with language to make very mundane, unremarkable discoveries appear momentous. Remember how the scientist assured us "many, many people" will be trying to determine where those critters fit in on "the tree of life" Talk about an idealized form!

Anyway, it had nothing to do with natural history. Boy, you guys are touchy.

January 25, 2006 4:00 AM  
Blogger Brit said...


Did people define 'species' in terms of interbreeding for their own use, or did that definition come ready-made from the heavens?

January 25, 2006 4:47 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...



January 25, 2006 4:53 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Geez, you can do better than that! You ask for my view on the consequences of ideas, then all you give in reply is one sarcastic, mocking comment? Not that there is anything wrong with sarcastic mocking, bit it isn't very filling. Argue, man, argue!

I'll allow some debate about Darwinism if it supports the debate about Platonic realism, but lets not hijack this thread for another Darwin go round!

January 25, 2006 4:54 AM  
Blogger Brit said...


Sorry - that's probably my fault. My point was that Platonic thinking is hard to shake off.


This page nicely summarises the difficulty of defining species:


The underlying problem is that while you can divide a concrete car park into clear, even portions, it's not so easy to do the same to a flowing river.

January 25, 2006 5:02 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...


You are darn right it was your fault. I can't believe Duck is tagging me with that, but then I keep forgetting you secularists don't understand fair play.

Well, if you check here you will see the definition and that the world is derived from the Latin for "form". Talk about irony! But c'mon, it's your side that ressurected the word and built a world view around it, not us. This is your problem, baby.


All right, all right, but you will have to give me at least a day. Real life calls. But, well done. It was a very good, if somewhat splenetic, post.

January 25, 2006 5:10 AM  
Blogger Brit said...


Mayr shows that a key to understanding evolution is to abandon Platonic thinking in favour of Population thinking.

By 'my side' I assume you mean science. And yes, science will eventually 'solve' the 'problem' by settling on a workable definition of the word 'species', because it is always scientists who solve their own problems.

(That's what I was getting at with that purple prose about anti-darwinists crossing the sea of knowledge by hitching a piggy-back ride on the scientist, until such time as they might find an opportunity to drown him, but actually finding they've got too deep to turn back to shore. Since they do no fieldwork, prefering to hone their biological expertise from comfort of the armchair or the pulpit, they rely on the scientifically-literate for the discoveries, the theory and the taxonomy.)

Orrin has stated that his only objection to darwinism is that it can't explain speciation. The reason he thinks this is because he has a Platonic idea of species. Every time he brings up a story along the lines of 'eyebrow lice are still lice', he unwittingly makes his position a little weaker.

January 25, 2006 5:26 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


The concept of species is organic to human language, and conceptually means essentially the same thing no matter where you go: life can be categorized by various inherited qualities. Further, an important consideration for those whom rely for their livelihood on animal husbandry, those categories also nearly completely mirror successful mating.

Clearly, that is not a rigorous definition, but, in practice, it is surprisingly effective.

For instance, Ernst Mayr was something of an ornithologist. IIRC, he was studying birds in a particular part of New Guinea. The local tribes had conceptually categorized area birds into 126 species.

Subsequent analytical study, using the more precise definition of species as reproductively isolated populations, showed they were right 124 times.

The problem with the more precise definition is that, while easy to state, it is extremely difficult to prove -- to do so within that study area would have required a cartesian product of 126 separate items. That is one frickin huge number.

Never mind that is just at an instant in time, and completely ignores chronological speciation.

So what we are left with is identifying species as groups that are reproductively isolated, regardless of whether that isolation at this moment is irrevocable. Why does this matter? Because evolutionary theory predicts that should populations remain reproductively isolated long enough, they will inevitably become so different as to constitute the ideal form of a species.

Nothing mundane, opportunistic, nor casual about that.

Orrin's continual misuse of "species" is no indictment of specialists' use of the term.

You are a lawyer. Surely, as a specialist, your use of legal terms encompasses more, often far more, than what Webster's conveys.


Apologies for nearly redefining the concept of OT.

Unfortunately, I'm going to have to read your post three more times before taking it on board sufficiently to say anything with even a remote possibility of being useful.

January 25, 2006 5:27 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

That's what I was getting at with that purple prose about anti-darwinists crossing the sea of knowledge by hitching a piggy-back ride on the scientist, until such time as they might find an opportunity to drown him, but actually finding they've got too deep to turn back to shore.

Believe me, Brit, we understand that charge. We're kind of partial to it ourselves in other areas of life.

And, no, by "your side", I mean atheistic materialism or natural darwinism or whatever you prefer. You keep forgetting that we think science is really cool.

January 25, 2006 5:36 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Thanks, looking forward to your reply. Please forgive the added spleen, this is my therapy.

I hate to stifle debate, as you guys make such insightful comments regardless of the topic. As long as you mention Plato somewhere in the post, I will be happy.

January 25, 2006 7:03 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

I can't find anything to take issue with in your conclusion, Duck.

But while we're waiting for Peter to fulfil that task, an interesting question is: why is 'Platonic' thinking so ingrained?

The capacity to split things down into their component parts, via an abstract logical structure independent of actual empirical observation, seems to be innate. If you ask a class of 5or 6 year old children to draw a house and a tree, their pictures will all look the same.

The house will be a square with a triangle on top, three or four windows, a door, and possibly a chimney with smoke coming out. The tree will be a long straight vertical trunk stalk with a curly bush on the top.

Yet none of them will have lived in houses or seen trees that really look like that. They draw 'ideal' houses and trees.

A similar thing happens in language development. Children learn the sounds, but the capacity to apply the grammatical rules seem to be innate. That's why children of a certain age say "he runned away", despite never having heard an adult say it. They learn the rules, then have to re-learn irregularities.

January 25, 2006 8:10 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Couldn't have said it better myself, Duck.

Catholic theology, at least the common or garden variety taught in American Catholic schools, is nothing but a kind of muzzy Neo-Platonism.

But there's no there there. It never touches the ground.

You can, by the way, derive a consistent theory of the sanctity (or value or whatever word you will) of all human life without referring to forms or idealism. I think you came pretty close to that by describing us a self-valuing animals.

In a sense, all organisms are restrictively self-valuing, in the sense that they necessarily evolve methods of defining themselves as 'us' v. all the other 'thems' in order to maximize reproductive success.

But that is stating it backwards. They succeed reproductively to the extent that they successfully can separate 'us' and 'them.'

January 25, 2006 2:58 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

While I have read some philosophy, I do so only rarely, because either it is deeply pointless, or I am deeply stupid. I shall proceed with a few examples, each likely to illustrate the latter possibility.

“Triangularity” is therefore something that exists apart from either mind or matter, in a third realm of its own: the realm of Forms.


talk about the Forms existing “in” a “realm,” and so forth, is purely metaphorical. Literally they don’t exist “in” anything, since “in” is a spatial term and the Forms, being immaterial, are outside time and space.

Ummm. Okay. But some statements about triangles are contingent. One might think all triangles have three sides summing to 180 degrees. But that is true only of plane geometry. Project that same triangle on a sphere, and those angles aren't going to add to 180, nor are the sides going to be straight.

So the form of trianagularness is materially dependent upon on another, what, form?

Further, while the Pythagorean theory is objectively true regardless of any mind capable of comprehending it, the act of comprehension creates a subjective truth, which is a material thing, since it is the result of material phenomena in our heads.

And since that is the only form of truth available to us, isn't the whole notion of this realm of Forms an empty exercise?

And that's even before getting to getting to more complex topics, like, say, Beauty, where the subjective eye of the beholder reigns supreme.

Aristotle also emphasized the idea that a substance -- a statue, a tree, a human being -- is a composite of matter and form, “hylomorphism,” a tree, for example, is not merely a hunk of matter, but a hunk of matter with a particular form, the form of “treeness,” where this form is (again) not merely a physical property alongside other physical properties of the tree.

Ummm. Okay. But isn't the term "tree" something we award to things that fit certain material criteria, to the extent these things fit the criteria. The dividing line between tree and bush would be? The form, then, is nothing more than the correct collection of distinguishing characteristics. Is the form of a tree the bark, leaves, or height?

St. Augustine combined Plato’s view that the Forms are eternal and independent of the human mind with the intuition that it is hard to see how they could exist apart from just any mind at all, and concluded that they exist eternally in God’s mind.

This is precisely the point where I lose it with philosophy. This is as pure a form of conclusion from incredulity as one is likely to find.

the traditional understanding of the idea that there is a “natural law” that determines what is objectively right and wrong is inextricably tied to classical realism. For “human nature,” as understood by the traditional natural law theorist... And that means it is something known ultimately and most fully only through the intellect and via philosophical reasoning,

Ummm. Okay. In case two philosophers disagree, who wins? How could you tell? Well, by running an experiment. Ooops, can't have any of that, now, can we?

I'm out of time, unfortunately. But within the space of a few assumptions and an appeal to ignorance masking as reasoning, we learn, conclusively, not only that the soul is just the form of a living human body but it fully and completely inhabits that body so long as it has a pulse rate.

Ummm. Okay. But what about the brain that conceived all this stuff in the first place?

January 26, 2006 2:55 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

I stopped on this thread only because I wondered what you alive guys would say.

Plato is a pointless windbag, and if it's true, as we were told at Cow College, that all western philosophy is a footnote to Plato, then it's the same footnote repeated over and over: 'He got that wrong.'

To a materialist (and somebody help you if you're and immaterialist), the only kind of trees are descendants of earlier trees. There can be no form or concept of treeness apart from trees.

No trees, no forest.

January 26, 2006 5:15 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...



January 26, 2006 8:08 PM  
Blogger Brit said...

The study of western philosophy - specifically in the sphere of epistemology, which we're talking about here - is largely the study of extremely clever people making extremely clever mistakes.

To become immortal (Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes, Bishop Berkely, Spinoza, Leibniz, Kant, AJ Ayer), the key thing is to be the first one to show that the last fellow made a mistake, and then to make a new and even cleverer mistake than him.

That doesn't render the study of western philosophy pointless, since it makes you realise just how rare and clever a person has to be even to make original mistakes.

And then there are gems like Hume.

January 27, 2006 1:16 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...


To my regret, I never studied philosophy and so my knowledge thereof is uneven and based a lot on secondary sources. I once tackled the Socratic dialogues, but became so fevered by the dirty bits that I simply had to stop. So I'm not all that confident I've got a grip on exactly what dear old Plato or even you sages are getting at, and I'll have to leave the full frontal attacks to others. But here are a few tangenital thoughts, composed to fulfill my promise and the hope that we can avoid falling directly into our default arguments about Darwin, morality etc., although avoiding them completely is impossible. Apologies in advance if I've missed the boat.

If I understand you and your pals here, at least one of your main objections to the platonists is very similar to your arguments on evolution and morality--that ideal forms such as trangularity, horseness, goodness etc. fail because of the inability of their proponents to define exactly where they stop and start. i.e. the fact that there are creatures that may or may not properly be called a horse undercuts the abstract notion of horseness, as does the fact/belief that the horse's ancestors didn't conform to what we see as ideal form. Same with the commandments, etc. I've never quite understood why you keep insisting that should trouble me, but no matter. We are all moderns who understand deconstruction and the idea that everything is just part of one long continuum composed of minute accretions, and that classifying species, behaviours, etc. is relative and subjective. Great fun pinning those idealists to the wall on that one.

However, assuming we are agreed that philosophy must at some point be tested against the reality we live and experience, I believe you and the anti-platonists have a little more difficulty when things are couched in the negative and also when you are forced to compare ideals. If justice cannot be defined with precision and is simply an artifical concept invented by humans as a matter of convenience/survival and is relative to time and place, why would humans share such a powerful sense of rage at injustice so widely, especialy remote, abstract or even fictional injustice. And why do we perecieve it so comparatively concretely? Indeed defining justice is maddeningly frustrating, but we sure know and feel injustice when we see it. Are you saying our intellectual and emotional perceptions of injustice are also mundane, relative, materialist, survival-driven mechanisms? Take the Holocaust. Why does it evoke such across-the-board horror and disgust? Why has it become our sacred lodestone of evil? How about love? Modern brights just love to attribute it to evolutionary pressures closely related to sex, but the loneliness of its absence individually and the cruelty of its absence from family and community are felt accutely and almost universally for reasons that have little to do with procreation or collective survival.

Same in the physical world. Horseness may appear to be a dicey concept in isolation, but it is blindingly real beside cows. If horseness does not exist as anything more than a relative, human-constructed term of convenience, how can you fault the father who tells his young child that the cow she is looking at may be just as much a horse as the horse beside it? Good parenting, that, especially in light of Brit's comment about the widespread commonality of a young child's conception of a house that appears to exist independently of personal experience. When I read that, I couldn't help think of Brit's frequent statement about not "needing" religion. Well, we hardly need an instinctive common idea of a house far removed from our own, so where does that come from. DNA? An ancient survival need no longer needed like the appendix? Oh, sure, of course.

Duck, I am utterly confused by the combination of your disdain for the concept of soul and your rousing odes to our humanness. What then distinguishes us from (again the negative/absence) extremely sophisticated computerized robots? I suggest the problem of the soul jumps clearly into stark relief when faced with that comparison, even though we fumble when trying to define the soul without it. Neurobiology? Oh, sure.

Finally, I would have thought your hot dog analogy undercut rather than supported your position. The reason we savour a good "roast beef" is it conforms to an ideal that "slaughtered cow from the abattoir" does not. Same meat, same preparation, same provenance, but one is enjoyed with almost transcendental pleasure and the other wants to make us barf. True, the specific example is culturally relative, but not the underlying experience, which I believe is almost universal and unique to humans. Have you ever encountered a hungry dog that was fussy about what its favourite food was called or how it was presented? Even the rudest savages attach ceremony and taboo to their food.

Now, I am fully aware that argument about comparisons and negatives is not scientifically airtight and free from ambiguities and exceptions. I am aware that, much as an anthropologist can always find some tiny obscure tribe that does the opposite of what everyone else does, you can scour the world and history for these. I'm also aware you can fall back on your time-honoured, all-purpose answers of DNA, survival, etc. My argument is that, when faced with these comparisons and negatives, the materialists/nominalists step right outside of real life and experience and end up arguing the same abstract ethereal silliness they accuse their adversaries of. The platonists deserve much more that the casual, impatient dismissal you give them.

January 27, 2006 4:05 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

I think you're on to something with regard to language. It has something to do with the innate semantic constructs that our minds are wired for. Our mind naturally bundles subject, action and object, so our language, even when we try not to imply agency, cannot get around it. Rocks fall to the ground. That implies some intent or desire on the part of the rock.

Likewise with ideas and concepts. We can't get away from thingness, or object-hood. If we can name something, the semantics imply that it exists, that it has thingness.

January 27, 2006 6:21 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

My disdain for the concept for the soul is on the intellectual level, I don't see any logical reason to believe in it. I don't disdain the people who believe in the soul.

But I do disdain the conclusions that many Platonists draw about the consequences of not believing in a soul. That is where it gets personal. This idea that a soulless worldview is necessarily an anti-human worldview. A love of humanity doesn't require the idea of the soul. It just requires humanity.

Speaking of the consequences of ideas, it seems that one of the consequences of the Platonic idea of the soul is that it drives one to become suspicious of the motives of those that don't share the idea. It seems to engender divisiveness and conflict, and a sense of moral superiority. I don't think that this is necessarily the case, but it does happen.

January 27, 2006 6:36 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

I'll quarrel with the notion that everyone revolts at injustice.

I have never noticed that.

Not to mention that there is not the slightest agreement about what is just and what is not.

As I said, I've been reading Jonathan Clark, which is to say, I've been reading hundreds of citations of 18th century divines about the impossibility of conducting a government without a king.

Plato, bleaahh!

January 27, 2006 11:11 AM  
Blogger Brit said...


I've receommended it before, but Stephen Pinker's 'The Language Instinct' is first port of call on that topic.

It seems our brains are hard-wired for grammar. Weird, but the evidence is there.

January 27, 2006 11:53 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...


A love of humanity doesn't require the idea of the soul. It just requires humanity.

Surely Duck is ducking here. If the traditional concept of soul puts you off for philosophical reasons, fine, but what is it that makes humans: a) capable of loving one another in a comprehensive, generic sense; and b)deserving of that love? Are you saying love of humanity is a good thing to be encouraged or just one of many equally valid choices we all must make? What is your response to the guy who tells you he hates humanity?

Sorry, but this reminds me very much of C.S. Lewis' comments on people who reject traditional religion but who believe in some mysterious unconscious Life Force. To paraphrase, it's a wonderful comfort both on a glorious sunny day when one is swept up by the beauty of life and doesn't want to face the implications of the belief that we are all a random collection of atoms, and also when one wants to do something rather selfish or sordid without any meddlesome conscious deity to watch and frown.

January 28, 2006 2:13 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

but what is it that makes humans: a) capable of loving one another in a comprehensive, generic sense; and b)deserving of that love?

Peter, I'm not sure that an answer to a is necessary. It should suffice that we are able to do so. You either feel like a part of humanity and value it as you value your own life, or you don't. Demanding an answer for a is akin to asking permission to be human. Same with b. Everyone has to answer that question for himself, but I don't see that it needs metaphysical justification.

As to my answer to the person who hates humanity, I'd say that it is akin to hating the boat that is keeping you aflowt in the middle of the ocean. Do you want that boat to sink, or do you want it to float?

I never found Lewis persuasive. Of course I read him after I had struggled with these questions on my own and became satisfied with the validity of secularism. I think he does an excellent job of persuading the persuaded. His arguments convince the believer that he made the right choice, and make them imagine that the unbeliever couldn't possibly maintain their unbelief in the face of them, but as with Brit's Eurythpo dilemma and it's affect on you and David his arguments just whistle over our heads.

You don't have to imagine a life force. Life is a force in its own right. Muscle and blood and neurons, flesh and bone, this is the life force. We are the life force. You believers are the only ones who worry about random collections of atoms. You are the ones who poke at your food and wonder what yucky things it might contain. Why is there a need to propose some separate, immaterial essence of life, some aether, some radiant, gaseous, nebulous cloud of life-ness to explain, or to affirm, your own existence?

January 28, 2006 6:20 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Here's another take on Platonic forms that I'm sure you believers have not considered. As was stated, the form of the triangle is the perfect, ideal representation of a triangle. It is a singular. The multiplicity of triangles that we actually see contain imperfections or additional qualities, like green-ness, that make them just shadows of the real thing. One form, many representations. One essence, multiple existences.

So if the human person is the imperfect shadow of the perfect form of human-ness, the human soul, then it is only in this imperfectness, these added bits of extraneous physical baggage that we are unique from each other.

The soul is a singular form. There is no Peter soul, or Brit soul, or Duck soul. There is only the singular form in which we participate. Brit's love of cricket, or my distaste for olives, or Peter's love of wine and Chesterton are just imperfect agglomerations of physical encrustation, like barnacles on a ship, that won't make it to the land of Eternal Forms. Yet when believers posit the existence of an afterlife, they aren't thinking of the eternal existence of the one perfect human form. They're thinking of their own bastardized, dog-eared, coffee-stained, worn and patched, customized and accessorized, comfortable old shoe of a soul, which contains all the quirks and features of their own personal identity. Sorry Peter, but all that baggage stays here in the realm of the fallen.

January 28, 2006 6:38 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...


May I suggest, in the interest of moving some of our discussions beyond the realm of boilerplate repetition and with admitted growing frustration, that we all resolve to take a bit more care to substantiate some of our more sweeping general pronouncements on history and particularly with our certainties about what those who don't believe what we believe actually do believe, or would if they properly understood their beliefs as we do(that being why we don't believe)? In the past week, we've had Harry confidently asserting a completely unrecorded practice of slavery in medieval Western Europe. We've had Skipper pegging moral condemnation of usury as a Judeo-Christian invention defined by Deuteronomy and medieval church doctrine rather than a timeless, universal approbation common to all faiths, many secularists like Adam Smith and even the ancients. When he isn't instructing David on the essence of Judaism, he assures us that, while those anti-Church, anti-Christian Nazis may have long since ceased believing in the Host, they were still boiling about those accused long ago of desecrating it and quietly tending the Lamarckian seed within. Now you come along to tell us Christians the bad news--contrary to what we ninnies have thought for two thousand years, we can't take Mexican food and Monday night football with us.

Duck, "believers" believe no such thing. In fact, those who have thought much about it tend to find their images of heavenly paradise clumsy, wispy, and elusive. And, to be honest, often a tad on the boring side. Why do you think it was so easy to convince Eve to bite the apple? My goodness, the Miltons and Dantes have been telling us for two millenia how hard and long a spiritual journey is, and now suddenly you tell us it is some celestial Club Med with direct flights and HBO.

By contrast, our descriptions of Hell, whether based on yesteryear's horrors of physical torture or semi-comical modern notions of emotional anguish (ex. locked in a room discussing medieval history with Harry for eternity), are extremely creative vivid, concrete and painful to even hear. I wonder why that is.

How about a slogan from Immanuel Kant for the Daily Duck, designed to keep all us sage-wannabes on our toes:

Out of the crooked tree of humanity, no straight thing can ever be made.

January 28, 2006 8:09 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

I'm the one with the unusual library, remember?

See David Brion Davis, 'The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture,' in which he expends nearly 700 pages just to try to define the various kinds of slavery in, yes, indeed, medieval western Europe. Won the Pulitzer, as I recall.

And if there were no slaves, it is hard to explain the two congregations of Spanish monks whose only function was to raise money to ransom slaves.

The westernmost parts of western Europe were short of slaves, because they were cut off from the likely sources. Over history, not all societies have been considered equally slave-eligible. But that does not mean they rejected slavery or that it had withered as a religious, moral, social or legal concept.

Was Venice part of western Europe? Were its sugar plantations in Crete and the eastern islands worked by slaves?

January 28, 2006 10:40 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Well, Peter, what kind of afterlife are you looking forward to? Because what I've described is pretty much the common view from what I have observed in my life. You forget that I was a Christian once. Didn't Jesus say to the criminal crucified next to him "this very day you will be with me in Paradise"?

How can anyone envision paradise except through the lens of their own corporeal, idiosyncratic desires? If such a paradise isn't in the cards, then what is the draw of Heaven? Why is it such a mainstay of the Christian foundation for morality?

January 28, 2006 10:50 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

These links should disabuse you of the notion that I am painting a caricature of religious belief:

What is Heaven like?

What is Heaven like?

January 28, 2006 11:00 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

I think you may have missed the point of what I said. I didn't say that you can't bring your stuff with you. I said that you can't bring "you" with you. Your identity as you is not part of the form of humanity, it is the barnacled hull that gets left behind. That's how it is, at least if you want to be true to Plato's theory of forms.

January 28, 2006 11:05 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

The Calvary Chapel guys certainly think that getting to heaven is the ONLY purpose of life and conduct.

They admit they cannot quite describe what heaven will be like, but they are certain it will be great.

This sect claims to be the fastest growing cult in North America. It has hundreds and hundreds of cult centers in the United States.

January 28, 2006 2:40 PM  
Blogger David said...

Life isn't like elephant testicles. Life is like the old Woody Allen joke about how life is like the two old ladies having dinner at a resort in the Catskills: One turns to other and says, "My food isn't very good." Her friend replies, "And such small portions."

In spite of everything, we laugh.

I suspect, Duck, that you are mistaking a definition for a tautalogy. "Soul" is the name for the thing that makes us uniquely human. All animals have brains and blood and livers; only people have souls. Surely you agree that there is something that makes us unique?

The first thing we ask when we see another person is, "Who goes there, friend or foe?" The basic question is "us or them." Americans tend to think that an expansive definition of "us" is good, which is not unique but is rare. This is the fundamental question of civilization and one for which Plato is useful, although I do hate that damn cave.

January 28, 2006 7:26 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Yes, thank you, Duck, for those links to the epicentre of Christian thought and belief. Very informative. And no, I haven't forgotten your background, although it is amusing to see some of the implied assumptions about mine that run through the comments of the Duckians. However, best to stick with ideas lest we fall into tiresome pop psychology. :-)

The Golden Rule is great stuff, but alone it suffers from the same problem as the New Testament--it doesn't make much sense without the Old. Do you really think we can build a world with everyone deciding his own tailor-made personal morality and then rushing out to "do undo others", etc? Sounds to me like a whole civilization composed of boy scouts dragging little old ladies across the street against their will. No offence, but the thought of a gaggle of Brits, Skippers and Ducks soaring unanchored on abstract notions of humanity and doing to me what they would have me do to them is a little alarming.

January 29, 2006 6:07 AM  
Blogger Duck said...


I'd be interested in a link to a discussion of the afterlife by a Christian authority that you consider closer to the epicenter. But I'd be surprised if it is a vision of Heaven that more than a handful of sophisticated theology nerds ascribe to.

As Harry mentions, this unsophisticated backwoods variety of Christian thought represented by the Calvary Chapel is the future of Christianity. Christianity has no epicenter, it grows wherever it finds fertile soil, like seeds on the wind. You may consider it the equivalent of kudzu, but it is the version that is growing.

Please elucidate more on your own view here. I've looked back at your comments, and you mostly draw unflattering images of the Duckians based on our statements, but don't offer much of your own view on things. What say ye!

January 29, 2006 7:33 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

That's a good joke! I forgot about that one. In a way, it makes the point I was trying to make with the elephant testicles joke. This notion that if we found out that we were just atoms, we wouldn't have any motivation to live. The bad food is the equivalent of that realization, that we're just atoms. The fact that we complain about it doesn't mean that we don't want as much of it as we can fit into our bellies.

Yes, I agree that Plato's Cave is one of the stupidest ideas that has infected the mind of Westerners for the last two millenia. Plato is full of false modesty in his dialogue with Glaucon, but the dialogue drips with condescention for the commom boobs who are stuck in the cave, and it is obvious that Plato considers himself the enlightened one on the outside. He laid the blueprint for intellectual hubris that has plagued us with the likes of Marx and the gaggle of current day nitwits that would rule us all through philosophy.

I actually think that Plato's idea of forms has hurt the cause of universal human rights. By painting all physical objects as imperfect representations of true forms, it leaves room for some objects to be less imperfect than others. Hitler's Aryans were closer to the true form than the Jews or the Slavs. Every ethnicity considers its own race and culture to be the highest form, and all others as barbarism. It is easy enough to bend Plato's philosophy to support nationalist and racist ideologies.

January 29, 2006 8:18 AM  
Blogger Duck said...


Yes, we are very different from the other animals, but how is it that that fact cannot be explained by a more complex neural development?

If it were just a matter of trying to explain human consciousness the issue wouldn't warrant more than scientific curiosity. But Feser and his realist cohorts insist that it goes beyond just explanatory considerations. Why this insistence on a separate soul to justify morality? I don't get the connection. This is the real nub.

January 29, 2006 8:31 AM  
Blogger David said...

For these purposes, I don't think it matters whether all that sets us apart is a more developed neural development. That's why I say that it's definitional: whatever sets us apart is the soul.

Although "more developed" is awfully judgmental of you. Who are we too say which is the more developed? Next you'll be telling me that we are the fruit of millions of years of natural selection and thus the fittest of all.

January 29, 2006 3:36 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

No, cockroaches are probably fitter. We're just the smartest.

Well then, you agree with me after all. The soul is a definitional concept for what sets us apart from the animals. That was my original point.

January 29, 2006 5:58 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


Thanks for the usury link -- it was very informative. Among other things, I wasn't aware that the prohibition extended beyond Islam and Judeo-Christianity.

But that really doesn't affect my central point, which was that the prohibition was based upon divine direction. However, to the extent that divine direction ever existed, it still does. Yet we all (outside Islam, and even they finesse the distinction to a fare-thee-well) operate quite happily with usury, particularly when considering the alternative. (One being the inevitable rise of a black market in lending -- loan sharks -- following the imposition of ceilings on interest; but that is grist for another mill.)


"Soul" is the name for the thing that makes us uniquely human. All animals have brains and blood and livers; only people have souls. Surely you agree that there is something that makes us unique?

Sure, to the extent there are clearly things that make any type of animal unique, even to themselves, from any other type of animal.

So far as that goes, our human uniqueness is no more unique than a horse's uniqueness. In terms of Realist forms, that is, since uniqueness exists outside the human mind ...

Ooops. Sorry. Bad form to take Philosophy to its obvious conclusion.

Bipedal with a knee hinge facing the back is what makes us uniquely human. All animals have brains, blood, and livers, but none walk on two legs like we do. I'm being slightly facetious here, but but following your line of reasoning, we have souls because of the way we move.

Structurally, we are nearly indistinguishable from chimpanzees. Our brains just happen to be hypertrophied, as, consequently, is our sentience.

IIRC, Descartes, consistent with Christian dogma, presumed, that since only humans had souls, non-humans were mere automatons. As such, they couldn't feel the pain of live vivisection.

Yes, there are things that make humans unique. Among them is the singular ability, so far as we know, to possess some sense of futurity and mortality. But as for souls, I'm not terribly impressed with a self-awarded prize.

January 29, 2006 6:18 PM  
Blogger Brit said...

I think humans are more important than anything else on the planet. I think this because I am a human and I have empathy and because humans are uniquely intelligent, self-aware, autonomous and capable of certain noble traits.

Like Duck, I don't think this needs a metaphysical justification. It's there and it's a good thing.

But one can still ask why it is there without undermining or destroying it.

I think humans are unique, but not because they have a soul.

And furthermore, I think that a simple thought-experiment shows that nobody else values humans just for their souls, either. Even Peter and David.

If Peter is right, and it is only the unique soul that means humans are worthy of loving and being loved, then it follows that all other life-forms are equal and, strictly-speaking, can be treated thus.

So a dog has the same worth as a cauliflower. On the unique-soul theory, it is no more or less moral to kill a chimpanzee or a dolphin than it is to swat a fly or cut down a tree. Pulling the legs off a live cat is the precise moral equivalent of picking roses from a bush.

Now certain Buddhists would agree with all that, and perhaps even our resident theologians here might accept that yes, that is strictly true. But I bet they don't act that way. Most of us happily munch on sheep and cow meat, but would draw the line at monkeys or horses (except the French of course).

Of course, this thought-experiment might not resonate with much philosophical profundity for the believers, but it does say something about our instincts and intuitions.

That's because it is not a unique soul that we value by instinct, but autonomy.

Humans have the most autonomy, but as the examples above show, autonomy is something that comes in degrees.

January 30, 2006 2:59 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...


A debate on the nature of the afterlife, eh? OK, I'll go first. Haven't a clue. Doesn't bother me. Your turn, now.

I'm not sure I'm really grasping this thread, nor where exactly your critique of Plato and idealism is leading you. But, Duck, how many times are we going to replay the rationalists' critique aimed at this or that individual aspect of belief that we all concede can't be defended rationally? The afterlife, the saints, usury, dietary rules, etc, etc. They are all tied into trying to grasp the ungraspable and especially notions of reverence and obedience. Individually they appear mostly absurd and invite almost instinctive challenges, which is why there are so many competing views about them within faith. You will have no problem in skewering any of them from a position of unbelief. But, having done that, you are then responsible for the consequences of a world without any of them, no?

What does strike me is how you brights back yourselves into such elitist corners. Much of religion is about trying to fathom the unfathomable and a lot of that will result in varied efforts to concretize the abstract. Obviously how people do that will vary according to intelligence, education, tradition, upbringing, how much effort one puts into understanding the issue, etc. If someone goes through life believing paradise bears a strong resemblance to Granny's garden, I suggest that is inoffensive per se and also that most of such people are fully aware of the potentially embarassing ambiguities and intellectual diceyness of what they are doing. It's not exactly a favourite dinner party topic. But it reflects a very natural, human instinct that we really can't stop--witness your core belief in "humanity". I'd love to hear you describe that concept in terms other than something like "a huge mass of sweaty, selfish individuals, most of whom I wouldn't trust to wash my car". Tell me why the instinctive mild revulsion and impulse to flee I feel in a bus station or (especially) at polling booths is irrational. Hit us with your idealism, baby. We've sharpened our rationalist tools and we're ready.

(BTW, I do note that at least a couple of you have admitted that, while you are happy to be in the front lines of a society-wide charge to make "humanity" move beyond religious superstition and order their personal and collective lives around secular, rationalist principles, you would never be so cruel as to preach that to your mothers.)


I don't think the soul is what makes humans worthy of love. I think it is what makes humans unique. Humanity generally is worthy of love (which really means justice, not warm and fuzzy feelings) because we've been commanded so. Obviously Somebody sees something I don't. Most days I don't recognize anything in the nature of humans that makes us particularly lovable as a whole, although I can sort of get there sometimes with effort--and I do mean effort. As in "on your knees" effort. Dogs and dolphins beat us on the lovability meter hands down. In fact, I am quite suspicious of many who claim to have an instinctive love of humanity (as opposed to family and even sometimes community) that originates within them. Not because of any specific character faults, but because you can't get there from there. At least certainly not on rationalist principles. Which is why so many young idealistic humanists eventually give up and turn to abstract anti-human causes like population control, statist planning, ecology, etc. And why we so frequently end up standing by and shrugging off genocide.

January 30, 2006 4:25 AM  
Blogger Brit said...


For love substitute 'value' or 'deserve just treatment' then.

January 30, 2006 4:39 AM  
Blogger Brit said...


"Much of religion is about trying to fathom the unfathomable and a lot of that will result in varied efforts to concretize the abstract."

I disagree. Much of theology is about trying to fathom the unfathomable. As is much of philosophy, which operates within far less narrow constraints than theology.

Much of religion is about educating from authority, and actively preventing new attempts to fathom the unfathomable.

January 30, 2006 5:31 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

Most of us happily munch on sheep and cow meat, but would draw the line at monkeys or horses (except the French of course).

That's because it is not a unique soul that we value by instinct, but autonomy.

Humans have the most autonomy, but as the examples above show, autonomy is something that comes in degrees.

I agree strongly with that, although I wouldn't call it "autonomy"; more like "ability to feel emotion".
Perhaps that's the same thing.

In any case, for exactly that reason, I don't munch on sheep or cows, or dogs or horses - no mammals at all.

Dogs and dolphins beat us on the lovability meter hands down.

Dolphins seem friendly and cuddly, and they are, in some contexts, but mostly people are unaware of just how vicious and oppressive dolphin society is.

It's somewhat like organized crime; sometimes gangsters help little old ladies, but they still think nothing of beating or killing people.

Dogs are lovable to the extent that they're totally submissive to humans.
Cujo, wolf packs, and junkyard dogs score quite low on the "lovability meter".

Humanity generally is worthy of love (which really means justice, not warm and fuzzy feelings) because we've been commanded so. Obviously Somebody sees something I don't. Most days I don't recognize anything in the nature of humans that makes us particularly lovable as a whole...

No kidding.
It's far easier to find reasons to hate humanity than to love it. Human behavior can be vomit-inducing, at times. Which is probably why...

[S]o many young idealistic humanists eventually give up and turn to abstract anti-human causes like population control, statist planning, ecology, etc. And why we so frequently end up standing by and shrugging off genocide.

It's easy to think that we can do nothing, either individually or as a nation, and sometimes that's TRUE.

But not always.
As North Americans, we typically carelessly squander annually amounts of money that equal the entire year's earnings of some third-world families.
Even "poor" people in Canada and the U.S. can make a big difference, simply because our trash is a lot of people's treasure. We just have to be mindful to give it to those in need, instead of discarding it.

I do understand those young idealistic humanists, though.
The lure of forcing people to act as if they had a hammerin' brain, just ONE CELL'S WORTH OF THOUGHT is all I ask--

Anyway, it's a potent fantasy, and attempting to enact it in reality can be the tell of a totally frustrated idealist.
I would number among them if I didn't know any history, which seems to be the odd hallmark of Leftists.

By looking over known natural and human history, one can see that things DO get better over the eons. It's just a painfully slow process, and setbacks and detours are far too common.

January 30, 2006 8:29 PM  
Blogger Duck said...


Yes, and that slow progress is usually the result of the little, practical ideas and not the grand, sweeping ideas.

January 31, 2006 6:19 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Peter, I'm not worried that Mom wants to have me killed. Can't say the same about Jerry Falwell.

January 31, 2006 9:37 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...


Falwell himself is no threat, but I can see why you would worry about his slaves.


that slow progress is usually the result of the little, practical ideas and not the grand, sweeping ideas.

You mean like Christianity, democracy, equality of women, justice, charity, private property, rule of law, free markets, etc, etc. Never accomplished nuttin', did they?

February 01, 2006 6:31 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Maybe I need to rephrase what I said - the difference is more between the pie in the sky, metaphysical ideas versus the practical, physical ideas. I'd put Christianity along woth Plato's theory of forms in the former, everything else on your list in the latter. There are small practical ideas and there are big practical ideas.

The difference between the former and the latter is that nothing about the former leads to the latter, and the latter don't need the former. The practical ideas do not need metaphysical justifications, they are justified through the court of experience.

February 01, 2006 9:26 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Glad you cleared that up, Duck. But where do you stand on big practical ideas vs. small impractical ideas?

Take your time.

February 01, 2006 1:29 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


Falwell himself is no threat, but I can see why you would worry about his slaves.

Never mind Falwell, how about The Religion of Peace?

No, I'm not asking you to justify that nonsense. I know on what basis I would condemn that sort of thinking. I'll bet you condemn it, too. It just isn't clear to me quite how you get there.


Dolphins seem friendly and cuddly, and they are, in some contexts

Following is a self-referential moment. If that sort of thing offends you, send the women and children to the basement whilst averting your eyes.

Back in the day, I lived on the beach in Southern California. Not surprisingly, I spent much of my Wonderbread formative years on a surfboard. One day, when the waves were nothing more than jumped up ripples, I noted a pod of dolphins working their way north, about a mile and a half off shore.

After a few moments of notionally calculating bearings, distances, and rates, I figured I could just intercept them before they passed by. We will ignore until another time just how anti-Darwinian it is to paddle out to sea just to mix it up with a bunch of large, wild, animals.

My notions were spot on, and I had picked a perfect intercept. As I got closer, I was thinking that not only does the ocean suddenly get a whole lot bigger when the beach is disappearing, but those dolphins, eight of them, were also getting a whole lot bigger.

Then, when they were about 200 yards away, they simultaneously vanished.

Being an amateur zoologist, I knew they had to reappear sometime, and somewhere. So I sat up on my board, rocking slowly in the long, glassy swell, and waited.

And waited.

And waited.

Then got my heart jump started as two of them erupted out of the water about six inches on either side of me.

For the next fifteen minutes I was in the middle of my own Sea World show.

Then, just as suddenly as they appeared, the curtain closed, and they all turned and resumed their northerly heading.

Yes, they were cute and cuddly. And they could just as easily have pulverized me.

Okay, that is way OT.

But not entirely.

We need not rely upon the soul for human uniqueness.

Sentience will suffice: because of it, humanity generally is worthy of justice.

Perhaps, though, I should have said the degree of our sentience is what sets us off. Because there is no denying those dolphins I ran into are thinking, communicating, planning, animals.

February 01, 2006 6:54 PM  
Blogger Brit said...


I called it 'autonomy', you called it 'sentience' and O called it 'the ability to feel emotion'.

It's something involving all three that we value, and since it comes in degrees, we value it in degrees.


Re: your discussion of 'Big Ideas', I'm not sure that many on Peter's list really count, assuming we're defining the 'Big Idea' as a fully-worked out theoretical system developed independently of the real world (eg. Marxism).

The history of democracy isn't really that of the implentation of a Big Idea. It was about in ancient Athens, but even there only a sixth of men could vote. In England, the vote was only very gradually extended on certain things, based on financial status for a long time and on gender for even longer.

Likewise, 'justice' 'charity', 'rule of law' etc. They're concepts, sure, like 'being nice' is a concept, but they're not exactly clearly-defined and implementable systems of thought.

February 02, 2006 1:39 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...


For guys who claim to be into small, pragmatic ideas, you are awfully fond of big abstract language. I'm trying to get my head around fellows who argue that the concept of "horseness" is meaningless but who happily hang their worldview on "genotypes".

I'll march for Anglo-Saxon empiricism over continental a priori abstracts anyday, but are you just heading towards telling us what you believe in represents concrete pragmatism while everything you don't is by definition "a fully-worked out theoretical system developed independently of the real world"? If so, let's hear you and Skipper on American and British patriotism.

February 02, 2006 6:09 AM  
Blogger Brit said...


Your example brings out the contrast nicely.

A genotype is an individual's specific genetic makeup - it codes for the 'phenotype'. We humans decide which bunch of phenotypes to call 'horses'.

The Platonic idea is that the concept of 'horseness' comes first, and all particular phenotypes are imperfect versions of the Ideal Horse.

Reality is generally bottom up, not top down.

February 02, 2006 6:56 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

The big practical ideas are those that have a major impact on society, like democracy. They generally result in a reorganization of society and are the cause of much upheaval.

The little practical ideas, like the idea that diseases are caused by germs, change societal practices in smaller, less revolutionary ways but end up having major benefits over time.

Now it is hard for me to see how Plato's theory of forms was of any use in developing these two ideas. Likewise Christianity, although Christians like to point out that it is the idea that we are imbued with rights by our Creator that makes democracy possible. But I would counter that the idea of earthly rights to liberty and the pursuit of happiness are nowhere to be found in Christianity. You can derive a right to life from the 10 Commandments, but I can't recall any scriptural passage that says you have a right to determine your own path in life or to pursue your own dreams.

February 02, 2006 7:12 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

And the idea that there is a perfect form of a horse is nonsense. Perfect for what? For living on the cold steppes of Mongolia or the hot desert of Arabia? The perfect form for the former would include a thick coat of fur, for the latter it would include a sleek, thin coat.

Or what about for pulling a plow or carrying a knight into battle? Again, different definitions of perfection. Perfection is a useless concept when discussed in the abastract, unless you are taking about abstract things, like triangles. When talking about physical objects or beings, perfection is so tied to context as to make it a useless concept for discussing a thing as a whole. Something that is perfect in one context may be totally flawed in another. Perfection is merely a measurement of utility, and utility is a judgment made by a using being, such as man. Outside of the context of an object's usefulness to a using being, things are neither perfect or imperfect. They just are.

February 02, 2006 7:35 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

The remark about Falwell's slaves was neither as amusing nor as clever as you imagine.


February 02, 2006 9:06 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


I called it 'autonomy', you called it 'sentience' and O called it 'the ability to feel emotion'.
I had thought "sentience" was the appropriate word, but on looking it up, it might well be, but not in the sense I had assumed.
Sentience (The condition or quality of being conscious or aware. An emotional response or perception that is different and distinct from the intellectual process.) is the precursor for notions of autonomy and futurity.
I find it a much more valuable notion than the "soul," and not just because I don't find it persuasive. More importantly, "soul" because it is so ineffable, is also emminently frangible: it is all too easy to decide, based on other ineffable criteria, that one's (or whole groups) soul may be condemned to eternal damnation. It is hard to reconcile that notion with universals, but that has scarcely been an impediment.
Sentience is far more useful -- we can as easily recognize it in others as ourselves. What's more we can easily see how we treat other species based on their perceived (toss in cultural-specific qualifiers here) sentience. This does raise some issues, but they are more pertinent in Part II.
If so, let's hear you and Skipper on American and British patriotism.
Okay. My patriotism is predicated pretty much solely on the Declaration of Independence. I find the idea that people should be left alone as much as possible to pursue their own happiness, with the equally important assertion that no one obtains any particular virtue by birth, very compelling.
And to the extent America pursues that goal, I am loyally patriotic to America as an entity, in addition to the Declaration.
To the extent it doesn't, I'm not. Jim Crow laws, anyone?

February 02, 2006 9:42 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Oroborous said: "one can see that things DO get better over the eons."

One cannot see that in Muslim countries.

As for us skeptics being addicted to big, general ideas, I'll thank you to include me out. I'm the one who kept trying to bring the Juddians down from the cosmic One to simple facts on the ground.

Like, for example, nobody's written a new verse in the Bible since Aikenhead was murdered in the name of Christianity saying that approach was a no-no. And, therefore, Jerry Falwell is a danger to my life. QED.

February 02, 2006 9:37 PM  
Blogger Oroborous said...


Yeah, that was a cultural-centric remark.

However, I'm firmly convinced that most Muslim societies are dead on their feet, so I automatically discount them when thinking about the future, just as I don't consider what the future contributions of the stone-age parrot hunting tribes of the Amazon might be.

I guess that what I mostly meant is that things always get better, for people like me and my kin.
(In a general and non-specific sense, of course).

For whatever reason, no Muslim-majority nation does ANY substantial non-military R & D.
While in the past that was a slow killer, the pace of future change will be such that Muslim-majority societies and cultures will be entirely irrelevant, except as tourist attractions, just as most of Africa is today.

Note to Northern African and Middle Eastern Muslims:
The pools of Arabian and Persian oil are large, but are being depleted rapidly, while North America's VASTLY LARGER reserves of petroleum are barely being tapped.

We're using YOUR RESOURCES to make us rich, while conserving our own.
Will you be able to afford OUR resources, when yours are gone ?

Meanwhile, you haven't used your cheap energy and vast financial resources to work your way up the value-added chain, by for instance becoming the cheap manufacturing capital of the world, as did China, and Japan before them, both of them lacking your (temporary) natural advantages.
Iran in particular hasn't even bothered to build enough refineries, so although they export a lot of crude oil, they import gasoline.

Nor have you sent every smart child that your society can dig up to learn how to be scientists, medical doctors, or engineers, and so build a huge store of human capital, as India has to some modest extent.

Fat, dumb, and lazy is no way to go through life, but that's your chosen path.

That path ends above a cliff. Enjoy.

February 04, 2006 1:51 PM  

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